V O L U M E 3 , N U M B E R 3 • M A R C H 2 0 1 0
In this issue
For a list of books mentioned in this issue, see link below.
Masthead art © by William Steig, used with permission of Pippin Properties, Inc.
These picture books will help little ones look forward to a warmer season, with poems and stories about trees, gardens, and springtime.
Popular poet/illustrator Douglas Florian celebrates the utility and diversity of trees in Poetrees, eighteen poems illustrated with handsome, freely rendered multimedia art. Bits of information laced with puns share time with other lore and advice (“Never destroy a / Giant sequoia”). A “Glossatree,” a brief note, and a list of five sources extend the information. (6–10 years)
The Inside Tree by Linda Smith features a man who lives alone in a house “just the right size for him and his teapot.” Mr. Potter decides one night to bring inside his dog, who sleeps outside under a tree; then he worries that he should bring the tree in, too. And so he does, transplanting it indoors and cutting a hole in the roof. David Parkins’s illustrations play with light, texture, and pattern in this comical tale. (5–8 years)
In Kevin Henkes’s My Garden, a little girl helps her mother water, weed, and chase away rabbits: “It’s hard work, and my mother’s garden is very nice, but if I had a garden . . . ” Playful text and pastel-colored art depict her dream garden, one any child would love — the rabbits are chocolate, a jelly bean bush is ready to harvest, and “good, unusual things . . . just pop up — buttons and umbrellas and rusty old keys.” (3–6 years)
Tots who miss snowbird relatives may find comfort in Carin Berger’s Forever Friends. A “small blue bird” and “little brown bunny” play together from spring to fall, miss each other while the bird winters in the south, and have a joyful reunion in the spring. The illustrations are “cut-paper collages . . . made using ephemera, such as catalogues, old books, receipts, letters and ticket stubs.” (3–6 years)
—Jennifer M. Brabander
Joanna Cole and illustrator Bruce Degen’s first Magic School Bus book was The Magic School Bus at the Waterworks, an exuberant exploration of the water cycle and management of water resources. Eleven books have followed, each one led by the always relevantly dressed Ms. Frizzle, who imbues her class — and readers — with the excitement of scientific thinking through story, sidebars, diagrams, and pictures. The latest, The Magic School Bus and the Climate Challenge, visits a, er, hotter topic than usual.
1. When the first Magic School Bus book was published in the mid-1980s, it was a new kind of informational book for kids. How do you think the series has changed over time?
The first subject, At the Waterworks, was a very simple one, so the book was relatively simple. Later subjects, such as electricity and the scientific method, have required more detail. Otherwise, I hope the series has not changed. We strive to make every book as good as all the others in terms of story, humor, and, of course, science.
2. How do you and Bruce Degen decide what work the pictures and text will each do?
Here is how we work: I research and write the text, word balloons, and sidebar school reports, and make a book dummy, a plan for how the book will be organized, with all the words in it. That goes to our editor and to a scientist consultant, and a long process of rewriting and refining begins. Finally, the dummy goes to Bruce, who researches what everything looks like and makes sketches. This is always a delight because he surprises us with his cleverness, humor, sheer virtuosity of draftsmanship, and inventiveness in making the cluttered pages work. Then his sketches go to me, the editor, the art director, and the scientist, and a new round of tweaking starts. The dummy may go through five layers of revisions before it is ready for final art to be produced. The entire process takes a year or more.
3.“Climate change” is, politically, a hot-button topic (and Ms. Frizzle’s last wardrobe change indicates another might be in the wings…). How would you respond to a charge that you aren’t showing “both sides” of the climate debate?
The Magic School Bus and the Climate Challenge is the first so-called controversial topic we’ve tackled. I say “so-called” because it’s really a false controversy. The deniers get a lot of press, but decades of solid science tell us that global warming is a real and present danger. I’ve read widely on the subject and have evaluated the evidence. The deniers’ statements are full of errors, smokescreens, and exaggeration and are downright misleading in many cases. I’ve been a science writer for forty years now, and I stand with the scientists. It would be dishonest for me to give space to a “side” that is unscientific.
4. What do you think informational books can give kids that electronic resources cannot?
A book is written with great care by an individual. When a child reads a book, he or she is immersed in the author’s point of view and passion. Then the child may read another book on the same subject and broaden the view. While some electronic information may have elements of this “bookish” tradition, most is a mere statement of current facts. This treatment can be very useful, but it does not replace the experience of reading a book.
5. Could you and Bruce and Ms. Frizzle explain Einstein’s theory of special relativity in a way so that I could understand it?
Ideally, a science book for five- to eight-year-olds enlists a child’s instinctive curiosity to bring about understanding — and further curiosity — about some aspect of the natural world. The book should be factual, of course, but facts aren’t enough: they should serve to provide a pattern or outline that allows the child to apply the newly gained knowledge to his or her understanding of the world. Here are a few more new books by some expert science writers.
Seymour Simon is probably the dean of science writing for primary-graders, and his Global Warming is typically excellent, marrying a logically structured text to expertly chosen, well-placed full-color photographs. His tone is firm but temperate: “Our planet may be going through a natural cycle of getting warmer. However, most scientists say that humans are at least partly responsible for climate change. That means it may be possible for people to slow down the change.” (5–8 years)
Author and illustrator Jim Arnosky generally takes the natural world for his subject, and Slow Down for Manatees is not simply an introduction to an unusual aquatic mammal but a low-key reminder that humans care for the animals with which they share the earth. Acrylic paintings are rich in Floridian pastels, and the story of a manatee that is injured, treated, and released (with her new baby) is appealingly told. (5–8 years)
In Turtle, Turtle, Watch Out!, also set in Florida, April Pulley Sayre and illustrator Annie Patterson take young readers on the against-the-odds journey of a sea turtle. Helped by the intervention of humans (including children), the turtle travels to the sea, evades predators and escapes nets, and, decades later, returns to the beach where she was born and lays eggs herself. Kids’ empathies won’t have any problem finding a focus, and appended information tells them how they can help. (5–8 years)
Thrill seekers take note: these four picaresque tales for middle-grade readers offer rousing exploits, lively characters, colorful settings, and heart-pounding plots that will leave young adventurers breathless.
Geraldine McCaughrean’s The Death-Defying Pepper Roux will satisfy even the most voracious appetite for excitement. Pepper Roux’s aunt has predicted that he won’t live past his fourteenth birthday, but the dreaded day arrives and Pepper’s very much alive. He embarks on a madcap escapade in an effort to cheat death, slipping in and out of various personas (ship’s captain, horse rustler, telegram delivery boy, French Legionnaire) along the way to finding his place in the world. A wildly improbable but thoroughly entertaining yarn. (9–13 years)
Player’s Ruse, the third book in Hilari Bell’s engaging Knight and Rogue series,successfully mixes comedy and suspense. Errant knight Michael and his squire Fisk unwittingly embark on adventure when Michael’s cousin Rosamund arrives on their doorstep, begging them to help her marry her beloved, a traveling player named Rudy. Murder, theft, and sabotage abound in this breezy, good-humored escape. (9–13 years)
In Mark Barratt’s Joe Rat, Joe trawls the sewers of London and hands over almost everything he finds to the loathsome “Mother,” under whose “protection” he survives. Bess is a poor country girl, brought into the city by her own (equally loathsome) mother, who would sell Bess to the highest bidder at White Street Market. The tales of these two unfortunates alternate for a while, but eventually the two fall in league. There’s more than a little “Hansel and Gretel” at work as Joe and Bess navigate the dark streets and disgusting sewers of the city in their quest for freedom. (9–13 years)
Calamity Jack, written by Shannon and Dean Hale and illustrated with comic assurance by Nathan Hale, is companion to the team’s previous well-received graphic novel, Rapunzel’s Revenge. This swashbuckling plot shines in the graphic-novel format, with frequent wordless stretches showing adrenaline-fueled action sequences, while the panel arrangement, shifts in perspective, and sound effects (“KROM — OOOF — KRAK — WHACK”) drive the story forward as inexorably as a locomotive. This steampunk-flavored turn-of-the-century fairy tale will appeal to boy-, girl-, reluctant- and eager readers alike. (9–13 years)
Teen girls have a wide range of reading choices this month—from romance to politics, from the speculative to the realistic, from traditional prose to graphic novel.
In The Carbon Diaries 2017 by Saci Lloyd (sequel to The Carbon Diaries 2015, in which Britain, in response to global warming, institutes a carbon rationing system and a series of natural disasters test the new social order), punk teen Laura is sucked into the mayhem that now rules the streets. Lloyd focuses on Laura’s political awakening rather than family drama, exploring the sociopolitical currents in a speculative future that feels all too plausible. For young adults looking for thought-provoking questions and challenging new themes, this is a gripping tale of global peril. (16 years and up)
In Hope Larson’s graphic novel Mercury, a search for gold leads to devastation for one family and potential salvation for its descendants. Intriguing linked tales alternate focus between two adolescents: Josey, who lives on a farm in Nova Scotia in 1859, and Tara, who inhabits the same land in 2009. Otherworldly elements (such as a “quicksilver” necklace that passes through time from Josey to Tara) in the realistic black-and-white cartoons enhance the spell cast by Larson’s parallel stories of treasure lost and found. (14 years and up)
Scarlett Martin’s life gets even zanier in Maureen Johnson’s Scarlett Fever, the sequel to Suite Scarlett. As her family’s small Manhattan hotel continues to struggle, Scarlett deals with the angst of a failed summer relationship and the insanity of her new boss, a theatrical agent. Johnson skillfully balances the camp with warm family drama. She takes aim at the dark side of show business while continuing to develop the larger-than-life characters — and Scarlett’s romantic travails — that are the heart of this series. (14 years and up)
An intimate story about love and loss, set in a dreamy, hippie northern California small town, Jandy Nelson’s The Sky Is Everywhere is tender, romantic, and loaded with passion. Perfectly content to shadow her high-wattage older sister throughout her seventeen years, Lennie (a secret poet) is completely lost when Bailey dies suddenly. Into her darkest hour appears bright, beautiful new boy Joe Fontaine, a brilliant musician with a contagious grin “the size of the continental United States.” Girls who loved Gayle Forman’s recent If I Stay will thrill — and sob — to this one. (16 years and up)
—Martha V. Parravano
It’s going to be interesting to see if the Magic School Bus, both a dependably excellent series for children and a high-profile brand for Scholastic, runs into engine trouble with its sortie into climate change. I imagine that there will be those critics who believe any book for children should “show both sides” of any controversial topic, as in “creation science” advocates demanding that schools “teach the controversy” that allegedly surrounds the theory of human evolution. But while I think the discussion of such debates is fine for the social studies or current events class, I like my science books to stick to science, neat. We do not need Joanna Cole or Seymour Simon to address the political climate along with the physical one, just as we do not need Steve Jenkins to give equal time to intelligent design in his fine book Life on Earth: The Story of Evolution. Children, so often held hostage to the ideological debates of adults, need books that don’t pretend to be anything but what they are, in this case, science books about science.
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