The Real World: children's books about nature, animals, weather, the environment, etc.

A Notes from the Windowsill annotated bibliography by Wendy E. Betts. Copyright 2005, 2006, 2007, 2008, 2009

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Last Updated 03/16/09


For Babies and Toddlers

(Click for Picture Books or Books for Older Readers )

Animal Babies in Towns and Cities. Kingfisher, 2005 (0-7534-5841-2) $6.95 boatd

Facts and sentiment are appealingly combined in this attractive book of animal photographs. "Look at my pointed ears," says a cute small animal. "Who is my mommy?" The next page shows parent and child together, as the baby animal explains, "My mommy is a red fox. I am her cub." The photographs of the parent animals, protectively hovering over their minature, half-formed counterparts, have great charm. (1-4)

Sweater; Longjohns; Swimsuit; Galoshes written and illustrated by Kit Allen. Houghton Mifflin, 2003 (0-618-26370-5; 0-618-22996-5; 0-618-26371-3; 0-618-22997-3) $4.95 ea. board

At first glance, these board books didn't grab me much--but they certainly grabbed my toddler. So I decided to take a closer look.

These seasonal-themed word books feature a bald, basically stick-figure child. (Not necessarily the same one: judging by the clothes, it's a girl in Sweater and a boy in Swimsuit.) In the first half of each book, the child adds one garment or accessories at a time: rain gear for Spring in Galoshes, swim gear for Summer in Swimsuit. The second half of each book shows the child doing typical seasonal activities, enjoying a snack and having a snooze. The one-word text of the second half always starts with "S," but it freely mixes verbs and nouns, which I found irritating at first.

So why does my toddler like these books so much? I wish he could tell me. Perhaps because the stick figure children, against bright, simply drawn backgrounds are very basic and easy to identify with. And the new words, like "clogs" and "scatter" are fun. The pictures also express a lot of different emotions: the pleasure of basking in the sun, the comforting warmth of hot soup, the ickiness of scooping out pumpkins or being smeared with sunscreen. All in all, these are understanding glimpses of a child's world. I think, after all, I like them too. (1-3)

Sun Snow Stars Sky written and illustrated by Catherine and Laurence Anholt. Viking, 1995 (0-670-86196-0) $13.99; Puffin, 1997 (0-14-055824-1) $4.99 pb

A series of short vignettes introduces toddlers to weather and seasons, inviting them to share their thoughts about hot, cold, rainy and cloudy days. Not especially interesting to just read aloud, but a nice participatory book, with lots of bright pictures of cuddly round children enjoying the weather. (2-6)

The Very Quiet Cricket written and illustrated by Eric Carle. 1990; Philomel, 1997 (0-399-22684-2) $10.95

Now available in board book format, this comfortable story about growing up describes the first day in the life of a little cricket. As a glowing sun beats down, the little cricket is born; a big cricket chirps "welcome!" but when the little cricket rubs his wings together to answer, nothing happens, "not a sound." As the day continues, the little cricket is greeted by many other small creatures, but still, he can't seem to answer. Finally, in the moonlight, he sees another very quiet cricket--and this time when he rubs his wings together, he chirps "the most beautiful sound that she had ever heard." A lyrical, gently repetitive text gives this story a leisurely atmosphere that defuses frustration and emphasizes the theme of developing at one's own pace. It's beautifully matched by the collage illustrations--formed of numerous, differently colored small pieces joined together--which are visually interesting without overpowering the story. This board book edition also has an apparently original feature: an electronic chip that produces a chirping sound when the last page is turned. I'm not crazy about books which make noises--they usually sound unpleasantly tinny and tend to make books seem more like toys--but I have to admit, this time it works. (2-6)

What We Do written and illustrated by Reg Cartwright. Henry Holt, 2005 (0-8050-7671-9) $7.95

"I'm a caterpillar. I creep.... We are lambs and we leap." That pretty much sums it up. Pictures made of basic shapes and uncrowded backgrounds show animals smiling as they describe, in rhyme, the different ways they move. This is a very simple book, but I really like how easily it reads aloud and the cheerful spontaneity of the ending: "We are children and we play." (1-4)

Outside Inside written and illustrated by Kathleen Fain. Chronicle, 1999 (0-8118-1981-7) $5.95

This early introduction to the idea of habitats uses die-cut pages to peek at the animals outside and inside places like a desert cave and a redwood tree. It's perhaps not coincidental that the animals "inside" always seem to be sleeping babies. Gentle rhymes and softly outlined illustrations also emphasize a restful effect, with scenes landscapes in soothing greens and browns fully covering the pages. (1-3)

A Time for Playing by Ron Hirschi. Photographed by Thomas D. Mangelson. Cobblehill, 1994 (0-525-65159-4) OP

Animals at play, alone or with others of their kind, are the subject of vivid colored photographs. A short but occasionally lyrical text describes how and why different animals play: "High up in the brances, tree squirrels play on delicate limbs. While playing, they learn a path from tree to tree." This is a great book for young children who are beginning to think about using their bodies to grow strong and healthy, and the simple, elegant design will appeal to any animal lover. (4-8)

Look Book photographed by Tana Hoban. Greenwillow, 1997 (0-688-14971-5) $16.00

The latest in Hoban's "Look" series features primarily nature photography: animals, flowers, leaves, and one incongruous but interesting photograph of a batch of hard pretzels. The photographs are first seen through a die-cut circle which offers an intriguing glimpse of colors and textures; turning the page gives the full view of the picture. When the page is turned again, we see a distanced view of the same subject, which in turn is covered with a die-cut page, so that once again, only a small section is visible. Strongly colorful and sharply detailed, Hoban's photographs encourage readers to look and look again, effortlessly absorbing concepts of aesthetics and perspective as they do. (2 & up)

If You Were My Baby by Fran Hodgkins. Illustrated by Laura J. Bryant. Dawn, 2007 (978-15469-090-0) $7.95 board

The familiar picture book pairing of adult and baby animals is used here for an easy, unforced introduction to animal habits and habitats. "If you were my baby possum," says the narrator, "I would carry you on my back As you learn your way in the world." "If you were my baby deer, I would help you learn to step lightly And find sweet flowers and tender grasses." Finally, the narrator will help his own baby "climb your own mountains, And delight with you in nature's wonders. But first, I'll tuck you in." The warm yet lighthearted text is well matched by pen & ink and watercolors pictures that maintain a mostly naturalistic air, but give friendly, curious and loving expressions to the animals; touches of cool blues and lavenders add brightness to the browns and greens of furs and forests. (1-4) (Also available in hardcover.)

Sweet Dreams written and photographed by Kumiko Kajikawa. Henry Holt, 1999 (0-8050-5890-7) $15.95

The familiar theme of animals sleeping has perhaps never been as beautifully expressed as in this book of nature photographs. In repose, the natural grace and dignity of the animals becomes inexpressibly touching, from an orangutan stretched out comfortably "in a bed of leaves," to a pride of lions sleeping "wherever they please"--in this case, draped across tree trunks, with paws and tail nonchalantly dangling. Notes at the end explain more fully the facts suggested by the gentle rhyming text: lions can sleep wherever they please because they have no predators. * (2-4)

Close to You: How Animals Bond by Kimiko Kajikawa. Henry Holt, 2008 (978-0-8050-8123-7) $16.95

This companion to the enchanting book of animal photographs, Sweet Dreams, (see review above) has a less spontaneous look than its predecessor, but is still exceptionally awww-inspiring. A tiny alligator grinning as it's gently held between its mother's teeth -- how can you resist that? A short and sweet rhyming text accompanies the tender photographs of mother-child animal pairs, as snow monkeys "stare at a friendly face" and prairie dogs "snuggle in a warm embrace." Notes at the end of the book expand on the bits of information contained in the text, explaining that the baby snow monkey and its mother spend hours staring at each others faces, and that two prairie dogs from the same clan always meet with a kiss. Sadly, they also reveal that many of the animals shown here are from endangered or threatened species.

The book might be better served by a different design: profuse bright colors and sharp, hard lines detract from the naturalism of the photographs. Still, its intrinsic appeal is very strong. A good resource for preschools and of course, Mother's Day. (2-6)

Forest Bright, Forest Night by Jennifer Ward. illustrated by Jamichael Henterly. Dawn, 2005 (978-1-58469-089-4) $7.95 board

Count to ten twice, first with a forest by day, then with a forest by night. In the day, a deer splashes, two bear cubs tumble and three woodpeckers tap; at night three opposums peek, four foxes prowl and five skunks amble. Despite the many active verbs--"chatter and chase... chipmunks race/strut and wobble... turkeys gobble"--the short rhyming text reads very soothingly, in conjunction with the naturalistic but slightly dreamy pictures, making this book seem just right for bedtime. On the other hand, you might want to allow more time to explore some of the captivating detail in the illustrations. The day and night sections each contain the other's opposite: an owl sleeps while the deer splashes during the day; at night, the "owl eyes search" while the deer curls up to sleep. The animals blend intriguingly with their natural surroundings; I particularly like the woodpecker that's just barely visible through a knothole. Perhaps best of all, each page has its number somewhere blended into the background: a sleeping salamander's tail curves into a six, moss on a log forms an eight. These pictures are so packed with interest, the book is probably even better in its larger picture book form. (2-8)


Picture Books

My New Kitten by Joanna Cole. Illustrated by Margaret Miller. Morrow, 1995 (0-688-12901-3) OP

This straightforward factual description of the first few weeks of a kitten's life is as enjoyable as any story. With crisp, lively photographs of every stage in the kitten's life, starting from its first moments outside of its mother's body, My New Kitten is immensely appealing, as well as a valuable source of information about kitten development for prospective pet owners. (2-8)

What Is Science? by Rebecca Kai Dotlich. Illustrated by Sachiko Yoshikawa. Henry Holt, 2006 (0-8050-7394-9) $16.95

"What is science? So many things. The study of stars and Saturn's rings..." As a rhyming text lists the many wondrous aspects of science, a jolly group of big-headed kids have fun exploring them: flying in a spaceship, climbing trees, and blowing around madly in a hurricane. There's no real factual information here, but the easy reading rhymes and brightly colored, silly pictures make it a fun way to introduce a science curriculum for young children. (4-8)

The Story Goes On by Aileen Fisher. Illustrated by Mique Moriuchi. Roaring Brook, 2005 (1-59643-037-0) $16.95

A compelling rhyme scheme gives an appropriate feeling of inevitable movement to this look at the cycle of life. The story begins with a seed hidden in a small patch of earth. The seed grows into a plant, which is nibbled by a bug, which becomes a meal for a frog. Eventually the cycles completes itself when the remains of a hawk are buried by night beetles called sextons. "And then in the soil/made rich in this way/a seed will start spouting and growing some day." Over and over, the story goes on.

Childlike paint and collage illustrations with bits of print and handwriting on them seem an odd choice for this book about nature, but are quite effective. Parents may want to preview this book before reading it to their children, as some of the images, such as a farmer shooting a hawk, could be scary. They might also want to consider the significance of the farmer's role in the cycle--the only one who's not killing directly for food. (3-6)

A Field Full of Horses by Peter Hansard. Illustrated by Kenneth Lilly. Candlewick, 1994 (1-56402-302-8) $14.95; 2001 (0-7636-1434-3) $6.99 pb.

With a text rich in tender understanding of the habits and instincts of horses, this book could make almost any preschooler into a horse lover. The narrative describes the sensory pleasures of watching, listening to, touching and even smelling horses; accompanying text gives more factual information to round out the picture. The carefully crafted watercolor illustrations are somehow less inspiring, but do give a good idea of the natural beauty of the animals. (4-8)

I Like Monkeys Because... by Peter Hansard. Illustrated by Patricia Casey. Candlewick, 1993 (1-56402-196-3) $14.95

Adorable watercolors of playful monkeys will draw children to this engaging book, which offers some general facts about monkeys and apes in a diverting, rhythmical prose. The illustrations show the natural grace and charm of the animals without resorting to anthropomorphism, while the text gives information in a lighthearted way readers can connect with. Beginning readers may feel like trying this book by themselves, with a little help.

Wag Wag Wag by Peter Hansard. Illustrated by Barbara Firth. Candlewick, 1994 (1-56402-301-X) $14.95

With the simplest of words and the liveliest of pictures, Wag Wag Wag brings the world of dogs to life. Dogs of many different breeds sniff, roll and piddle, drool and dribble, all the while bounding exuberantly across the pages. Firth's pencil and watercolor drawings are a perfect mix of realism and whimsy and the easy but evocative text will both please toddlers and entice beginning readers. An excellent choice for sibling reading.

Guess What I Am by Louise Jackson and Paul Harrison. Illustrated by Anni Axworthy. Candlewick, 1999 (0-7636-0625-1) $7.99

This early introduction to animal facts cleverly uses peepholes to connect familiar domestic animals with their wilder counterparts. After readers guess what kind of animal is like a kitten, but has stripy fur and lives in the jungle, they turn the page to learn that tigers are the biggest cats in the world; the peephole that once revealed the fur now shows the original cat whimsically commenting on her distant relative. It's moderately informative fun that doesn't get too complicated or overwhelming. The acrylic illustrations use bright, familiar colors and contrasting "frames" to catch the eye and visually contain each separate vignette. (3-6)

Actual Size by Steve Jenkins. Houghton Mifflin, 2004 (0-618-37594-5) $16.00

Brilliant in concept and execution, this deceptively simple book gives readers a chance to see tremendously large and incredibly small creatures, "actual size." Twelve inch tall pages (as shown by a ruler on the dust jacket) are ample to show the entire Goliath birdeater tarantula, which justifies its name by eating birds and small mammals; other animals, such as the giant squid, can be seen only in close-up of its eye, larger than my son's head. Readers will be fascinated by the chance to compare their own hands to the human-like hands of the huge gorilla and the tiny pygmy mouse lemur--or to see how well their hand would fit inside the jaws of the saltwater crocodile, a man-eater. The paper-collage illustrations are particularly well designed, creating realistic textures for the smaller creatures, yet also adding a layer of safe artificiality to the more frightening spreads, like the teeth of the great white shark. (4 & up)

Move! by Steve Jenkins and Robin Page. Illustrated by Steve Jenkins. Houghton Mifflin, 2006 (978-0618-64637-1) $16.00

This look at animal movements creates interest by showing some of the ways movements are shared amongst different animals. Each two-page spread features one movement word--climb, fly, run--used by two different creatures; turn the page an you discover the last creature also moves in other ways: "A snake slithers through rustling leaves... and climbs into a tree. A praying mantis climbs a blade of grass... then spreads its wings and flies." A white background displays rough-textured paper collages of the animals, for a look that is somewhat formal, but elegantly uncluttered. Readers who would like to know more will find a paragraph on each animal at the end of the book.

Prehistoric Actual Size written and illustrated by Steve Jenkins. Houghton Mifflin, 2005 (0-618-53578-0) $16.00

This follow-up to the awe-inspiring Actual Size (see above) uses the same techniques to display large and small prehistoric creatures, such as the 4" long flying cockroach (thank goodness that's extinct!) and the 4-page-spread head of the Dsungaripterus (kind of glad that one isn't around any more, either.) Paper-collage illustrations are striking and shivery. An appendix gives more information about each animal shown. (6 & up)

What Do You Do With a Tail Like This? written and illustrated by Steve Jenkins and Robin Page. Houghton Mifflin, 2003; 2008 (978-0-618-99713-8) $7.95 pb

Think you know what a nose is for? How about feet, pretty obvious, right? Or maybe not. This inventive picture book shows that while all animals may share the same general body parts, they can use them in vastly different ways: a platypus uses its nose to dig in the mud, an elephant uses it to bathe and a mole uses it to find its way un

derground.

The Caldecott Honor book grabs attention with its eye-catching design: first a spread invites curiosity by showing just the animal parts against a white background, along with a question, "What do you do with a nose like this?" (Or ears or a tail or eyes.) With a start like that, you almost have to turn to the next spread to find out what the whole animals look like, and what they do. The collage style illustrations give a wonderfully tactile impression, making it easy to imagine what the animals would actually feel like it you could touch them.

With limited, straightforward text, this book is accessible to young children as a read-aloud but would be equally interesting to older kids, who can also find more information in the notes on each animal included at the end. * (3-8)

Water Beds by Gail Langer Karwoski. Illustrated by Connie McLennan. Sylvan Dell, 2005 (0-9764943-1-0) $15.95

For children who like nonfiction, this bedtime book offers an occasionally awkward but mostly pleasing combination of fact and fancy. A boy lying in bed hugging a stuffed dolphin--in a room enjoyably decorated entirely in marine themes--wonders what it would be like to sleep in the deep, deep sea. Glossy, highly-colored illustrations then show him sleep-swimming with orcas, curling up cozily on a harbor seal, and bobbing faceup like a walrus--always with his stuffed dolphin tucked nearby. The text soothingly describes some interesting and surprising facts about how marine animals sleep: "Sea otters doze above undersea kelp forests, wrapping the kelp strands around their tummies to anchor themselves in place. When it's very cold, they blanket their faces with furry front paws." For some reason, the pictures aren't completely consistent--the artist seems reluctant to depict the boy on his stomach, even when the animals clearly are--but the ones with the most similarities between animals and boy, such as when he is wrapped up in kelp with the otters, are truly charming. (4-8)

And So They Build written and illustrated by Bert Kitchen. Candlewick, 1993 (1-56402-217-X) $15.95; 1995 (1-56402-502-0) $5.99 pb

This captivating picture book shows many of the unusual shelters created by birds, animals and insects around the world, including round clay enclosures built by the gladiator tree frog, soil buildings shaped like huge mushrooms built by cubiterme termites, and leaves actually sewn together by the aptly named tailorbird. The straightforward but refreshingly non-simplistic text explains why each animal needs its particular kind of shelter and how it creates it; the exquisite drawings, reminiscent in their realistic beauty of Audubon's art, show the animals at work in their natural settings. Seeing the animals building their amazingly sophisticated structures is simply awe-inspiring, for children and adults alike.

The Sunset Switch by Kathleen V. Kudlinski. Illustrated by Lindy Burnett. NorthWord, 2005 (1-55971-916-8) $15.95

An enticing premise and striking illustrations make this nonfiction book as appealing as a story. As one animal lies down to rest after a day of hunting or gathering, another, with the same diet, gets up to begin its day... in the night. Vividly colored yet naturalistic portraits of the animals are framed by motifs of their foodstuff: nectar-filled flowers for a butterfly and moth, lily-pad lounging frogs for the Snowy Egret and the Night Heron. Readers can also search for the habitat of each animal in its companion's page. Whether it's encouraging each animal to rest its weary head or to shake a leg, the text has a soothing quality which makes it a fine choice for bedtimes. Note that the cover as reproduced here doesn't do the book justice; the actual colors are far richer. (2-6)

Baby Koala by Aubrey Lang. illustrated by Wayne Lynch. Fitzhenry & Whiteside, 2004 (1-55041-876-9) $6.95 pb

Enticing photographs of a baby koala as it grows up are well matched here with a clear, accessible text full of interesting facts about koala life. The book follows the baby koala from when it's first born, looking "like a tiny, pink, wiggly worm," to its childhood spent riding piggyback, to explorations away from its mother and eventual independance. Pictures of soft, teddy-bear-like koalas have built in appeal, of course, but these of mother and clinging baby are particularly fetching. An index is included. (4-8)

Sea Shapes written and illustrated by Suse MacDonald. Gulliver, 1994 (0-15-200027-5) $13.95 (printed on recycled paper); Voyager, 1998 (0-15-201700-3) $6.00 pb

Illustrated with colorful sea scenes, this fascinating look at shapes shows how their artificial forms can be found in nature. One side of each page shows a standard shape, changing from scene to scene until it is part of a sea creature; the other side of the page features a full-page illustration of the creature in its natural form and environment. The collage pictures, showing the sea in many lights and shades, are vibrant and eye-catching; each also works as a mini-art lesson. An appendix at the end gives basic facts about each sea inhabitant featured in the book. (2-6)

Panda Bear, Panda Bear, What Do You See? by Bill Martin Jr. Illustrated by Eric Carle. Henry Holt, 2003 (0-8050-1758-5) $15.95

This collaboration by Martin and Carle is very much in the style of their previous books, Brown Bear, Brown Bear What Do You See? and Polar Bear, Polar Bear, What Do You Hear?: short, repetitive sentences are accompanied by large, vibrant animal illustrations. This time the text focuses on movement--a green sea turtle swimming, a macaroni penguin strutting--and all the animals share one sad thing in common: they are all endangered. The book ends with a dreaming child, face formed by the moon and floating amidst stars, seeing all the endangered animals wild and free. The repetitiveness of the text keeps it from being a very interesting read-aloud, but the illustrations of the animals, sometimes fierce, sometimes a little sad, evoke an empathy which will make this a a natural starting point for discussion about endangered wildlife. (4-8)

Gone Fishing written and illustrated by David McLimans. Walker, 2008 (978-0-8027-9770-4) $16.99

This follow-up to the Caldecott Honor book Gone Wild: an Endangered Animal Alphabet counts from one to ten and then back again, illustrating the numbers with stylized, folk-art drawings of endangered sea creatures. Drawn in blue, white and black, against blue or black backgrounds, the pictures are very striking, though squeezing the animals into the shapes of the numbers is sometimes an exercise in imagination. Each page also contains a more realistic drawing plus some basic information about the creature: class, habitat, regions, threats and endangered status. A "Diving Deeper" section at the end offer more detail on each one, and there is also a section on ocean facts by tens: "Less than 1 percent of water on Earth is freshwater. In every fisherman's haul of shrimp, the nets catch up to 10 times the weight of the shrimp in other species, which is then trashed. Giant kelp, the fastest-growing plant in the ocean, can grown up to 100 feet long in little more than a year."

As nonfiction this book is a little dry, no pun intended, but numbers that come with tentacles, bulging eyes and sharp teeth are an immediate eye-catcher, and the creative use of limited colors and negative space only adds to the strong visual appeal. (5-10)

Our Apple Tree by Gorel Kristina Naslund. Translated by Laaren Brown. Illustrated by Kristina Digman. Roaring Brook, 2005; 2006 (1-59643-191-1) $6.95 pb

Two odd little children take us through the year of their apple tree: winter, when the children sleep curled up in its branches, but nuthatches are looking for little bugs under its bark; spring, when bees gather pollen from the apple blossoms; summer, when the apple tree grows its apples; and fall, the time for apple art and applesauce and apple pie. When the last leaves fall, the children once again curl up to sleep on the branches of the tree they love.

Originally published in Sweden, this is an appealing combination of fact and whimsy. It strikes me as being just on the edge of overly cute and some people will surely think it crossed over, but the small people who live in the tree, who sometimes shrink enough to curl up on an apple or rest inside a leaf, have an offbeat charm that works for me. (They remind me a bit of some of Tove Jansson's Moominvalley characters.) The translation into English is unusually readable and the unfamiliar qualities of the illustration here just seem fresh and funny: I love the apple party" featuring a moose, a deer, a pig in pearls, and a cow with a spring bouquet on her head. (2-5)

Pumpkins written and photographed by Ken Robbins. Roaring Brook, 2006 (1-59643-184-9) $14.95

The life cycle of pumpkins, from seeds sown in the spring to bountiful squashes of all shapes and colors to be carved into jack-o'-lanterns in the fall, is documented here. (Pumpkins are a food aren't covered.) Down-to-earth photographs in natural settings accompany an informative text that is simple enough to read aloud easily, yet also has a touch of snap and personality. Basic instruction for making a jack-o'-lantern are included, and the book ends with a spread of varied, glowing jack-o'-lantern faces. (4-8)

Winter Lullaby by Barbara Seuling. Illustrated by Greg Newbold. Harcourt, 1998 (0-15-201403-9) $16.00

It's not exactly a lullaby, but this short book does have a soothing quality, and would make excellent bedtime reading. Each two-page spread, illustrated in a glossy, hyper-realistic style, asks a question about animals in winter: "When ice covers the mountain lake like a crust, where do the fish go?" The next spread reassuringly answers in a brief rhyme: "They swim below, where warm streams flow." A nice first introduction to winter facts. (2-5)

About Reptiles by Cathryn Sill. Illustrated by John Sill. Peachtree, 2003 (1-561-45233-5) $7.95 pb

Attractive, naturalistic paintings are paired here with clear, concise descriptions of very basic reptile facts. Reptiles, we learn, need warm temperatures. They move by crawling, or by swimming. Some have short legs... or no legs at all. This book is short enough to make a pleasant read-aloud for a younger child, or an interesting early reader. Notes at the end give extra information about the pictured reptiles. (4-8)

Lots and Lots of Zebra Stripes written and illustrated by Stephen R. Swinburne. Boyds Mill, 1998 (1-56397-707-9) $15.95

There's a surprising amount that can be learned from patterns in nature: geometric shapes, principles of symmetry, life-cycles. But this gentle little primer doesn't push a lot of facts; instead the straightforward text and eye-catching photographs merely encourage readers to observe different patterns, inevitably sparking curiosity and appreciation. It's a book that so many questions to discuss: Why are spider webs spiral? What shape are the blocks on a giraffe? Why do tree stumps have rings? The questions arise naturally from the mysterious loveliness of the patterns, and even readers who learn nothing else will be easily convinced that "patterns make our world a beautiful place." (3-8)

Guess Whose Shadow? written and photographed by Stephen R. Swinburne. Boyds Mill, 1999 (1-56397-724-9) $15.95

Pictures speak louder than words in this dynamically illustrated book. While the text talks simply about the nature of shadows, the accompanying color photographs glow with light and action as they illustrate the basic concepts. Part of the book is a guessing game, showing photographs of the intriguing shadows of items like toy airplanes or lawn flamingos. This is an eye-catching introduction to the concept of shadows, and the many games that can be played with them. (3-8)

Animal Faces by Kyoko Toda. Translated by Amanda Mayer Stinchecum. Photographed by AKira Satoh. Kane/Miller, 1996 (0-916291-62-6) $16.95; 2000 (0-916291-99-5) $8.95 pb

Extremmely entertaining as well as educational, this charming book from Japan shows that all animals are unique individuals. Each two-page spread is devoted to a particular type of animal represented by 21 different photographs. A brief description of the animal is followed by a question for readers to ponder as they look at the photos: "What helps you tell one giraffe face from another?" "Can you spot the orangutans who look ready for mischief?" (All all of them, I thought.) The astonishing variety of expressions the different animals display is quite fascinating and makes the touch of anthropomorphism in the text easy to forgive.

An underlying theme of the book is the threat of extinction many animals face. The page about wolves is particularly effective: after noting that wolves have been killed off in Japan because they were thtough to be dangerous, the book asks "Do these wolves look especially dangerous to you?" while showing utterly beguiling photos of dog-life, sad-eyed creatures. (A few scary ones do help explain how they got that reputation.)

Unusually long for a picture book, Animal Faces covers 24 different animals, showing 504 different faces--each more intriguing than the last. Not only does it provide hours of visual fun, it leaves readers more interested in the world around them.

My Hen is Dancing by Karen Wallace. Illustrated by Anita Jeram. Candlewick, 1994 (1-56402-303-6) $14.95

The matter-of-fact narrative of this book somewhat belies the imaginative title; this is a pleasant but fairly straightforward, factual description of a hen's life on a farm. The pen and ink and watercolor illustrations are equally straightforward. One important fact is left out of the book: the difference between fertilized and unfertilized eggs. The scene of cute little chicks hatching will almost certainly require some frantic explanations for egg eaters.

Think of an Eel by Karen Wallace. Illustrated by Mike Bostock. Candlewick, 1993 (1-56402-180-7) $14.95; 2001 (0-7636-1522-6) $5. 99 pb

Gorgeously colored watercolor paintings and sparse but vivid writing make the eel a beautiful thing in this stunning book. Hand-lettered notes work in counterpoint to the text, providing the factual basis for the poetic images.


Books for Older Readers

An American Safari written and illustrated by Jim Brandenburg. Walker, 1995 (0-8027-8319-8) $16.95; 1996 (0-8027-750-2) $8.95 pb

Unlike Brandenburg's previous books, To the Top of the World and Sand and Fog (see below), An American Safari is based, not on one journey, but on a lifetime of photographing the prairies, beginning with his first wildlife photograph, taken with a $3 plastic camera. For this book then, he was able to choose the best shots from a large body of work, and it shows: virtually every photo is a masterpiece, subject and setting working in perfect harmony to capture moments that are lively, revealing, humorous or simply beautiful. A photo of a prairie dog, miniscule against a background of grazing bison, shows better than words the peaceful coexistence between the two animals; Monarch butterflies perching on wildflowers exquisitely illustrate the crisp beauty of a prairie morning; a rattlesnake and a cactus reveal the dangerous side of the prairie, as they are captured in what looks remarkably like the same threatening pose.

An American Safari is also a pleasure to read, although somewhat rambling: here describing prairie life, there dipping into history, often turning to the author's own story and to ecological concerns. It will be especially interesting to readers interested in wildlife photography as a career or in environmental issues (an appendix includes addresses for the Nature Conservancy and many prairie preserves) but its general appeal goes far beyond simple categories. (8 & up)

Face to Face With Lions by Beverly and Dereck Joubert. Photographed by Berverly Joubert. National Geographic, 2008 (978-1-4263-0207-7) $16.95

There's a lot that appeals in this new series by National Geographic: plenty of striking photographs of course, an effective design, many interesting extra features. What really worked for me, though, was the use of first person narrative by people who've worked with the animals for a long time. The personal touch makes the information flow and the facts come to life.

Joubert draws us in from the start with an exciting and funny story about how he and his wife Beverley had an encounter with an unfamiliar lion. "We live by an important rule out here. If a lion charges, we stand out ground. If we ran, it would turn into a cat-and-mouse game. And that's a game we couldn't win. So we faced down the angry lion." Joubert is impressed by how perfectly still his wife manages to be, only realizes after the encounter is over that she had very sensibly backed slowly away.

Following this, we learn about the areas where lions live, about the course of their lives, and about the issues that threaten them. Personal information keeps the narrative lively: "We love to watch lions with cubs. Sometimes you'll see the cubs running, leaping, biting an ear, attacking a tail. The cubs in a pride are usually born around the same time. They suckle the milk from any mother they come across any time. After three of four months, I doubt whether the mothers even know which cubs are theirs." Throughout the book the photographs, all labeled with extra detail, are exciting and eye-catching, ranging from the aggressive grandeur of the pack leaders to the cuteness of the cubs. There's a bit of realistic gore, as this is a book about predators, but I think only very sensitive children would find it too much.

Extra features at the end of the book include a section on how to help endangered creatures, suggestions for observing lions in a zoo, a round-up of general facts, a glossary, books and websites, and an index. Even the research and photographic notes have a personal touch, describing sitting in 128 degree temperatures for 12 hours straight, only to lose a perfect shot to a dead battery.

This is an excellent choice for school and public libraries and might even be able to turn on kids who aren't usually attracted to nonfiction. (6-9)

Sand and Fog written and illustrated by Jim Brandenburg. Walker, 1994 (0-8027-8232-9) $16.95; 1996 (0-8027-7476-8) $6.95 pb

"I tend to turn every assignment into a natural history story. In the great Namib Desert how could I resist?"

Sent to Namibia (formerly known as South-West Africa) to take photographs of racial and political unrest, Brandenburg fulfilled that assignment as quickly as possible in order to devote himself to capturing the landscapes, animals and people of the region. This exceptionally fine picture book describes and shows what he saw: a land in which the very harshness of life has created much that is unique and beautiful, from a smoky "shroud of fog" that may give the desert its only water, to the complex mazes of huts the Ovambo communities build to confuse intruders.

Brandenburg's color photographs are simply breathtaking, revealing the beauty, clarity and and mystery in everything they show. Sand dunes become glorious wind-carved sculpture; a herd of zebras seen through dusty sun are like a phantom vision. The few photographs of people are perhaps the best of all, because they make scenes which are very foreign, understandable: a Herero woman carrying a sewing machine on her head looks competent and powerful; a Herero group baptism, in which the priest spits water upon people's head, conveys a great feeling of spirituality and ritual peacefulness. Brandenburg's first-person narrative is as enchanting as the photographs, so easy and natural that reading it is like listening to a friend describing a fascinating trip. There is no simplification for children or obvious efforts to be "educational"--and so the information he gives seems like just the sort of information you'd want to know. This is some of the best nonfiction I've seen, for children or adults. * (8 & up)

To the Top of the World written and photographed by Jim Brandenburg. Walker, 1993 (0-8027-8219-1) $16.95; 1996 (0-8027-7462-8) $6.95 pb

"Good photographs, like wolves, are elusive. Good photographs of wolves? Nearly impossible." Brandenburg then has done the nearly impossible, with this staggeringly beautiful photo essay about his spring and summer spent with Arctic wolves. These isolated wolves are so unfamiliar with man that Brandenburg was able to insinuate himself carefully into their lives, to get to know them as individuals and capture their beauty and unique character in unforgettable words and pictures.

"Wolves have very individual personalities," writes Brandenburg. "Bison and musk-oxen all behave much the same within their herds. Not wolves. It probably has something to do with their intelligence and gifts of perception." To the Top of the World introduces us to a proud alpha male, "Buster"; an intelligent, skillful alpha female, "Midback"; "Mom," a tolerant and devoted mother to the pack's pups; and scraggly "Scruffy," the bottom member of the pack, usually left behind from hunts to babysit. Although trying not to anthropomorphize the wolves, Brandenburg could not believe they do not have an emotional range as valid as ours: "Sometimes, during those days on Ellesmere, I would wonder how the wolves perceived me. Maybe they attributed wolflike feelings to my odd human behaviors. I wouldn't have been surprised."

As in Sand and Fog (see above), Brandenburg's unselfconscious, comfortable prose is a pleasure to read, enjoyable for any age. His illustrations range from deceptively simple photos of the wolves in amusingly characteristic actions and attitudes--one fascinating shot, the only one in the book not taken by Brandenburg, shows a wolf nonchalantly strolling by Brandenburg as he takes a nap--to photographs of the utmost artistry, with contrasts in color, texture and scale that are literally breathtaking. Each photograph, from the most playful to the most impressive, evokes an emotional as well as an aesthetic response. Photography students, as well as those interested in animals, should be especially careful not to miss this book, but almost anyone could enjoy it. * (8 & up)

Wanna Bet? by Vicki Cobb and Kathy Darling. Illustrated by Meredith Johnson. William Morrow, 1993; Avon Camelot, 1994 (0-380-71722-0) $3.50

Wanna bet you can tie a knot in a bone? That you can move cardboard by staring at it? That you can find iron filings in breakfast cereal? That you can make fire with blood? Kids will love this collection of easy and fun tricks based on mathematical and scientific principles. Each trick, or experiment, includes simple directions and an explanation of the theory behind it; most require very little preparation or special equipment. The book is generally safety-conscious (although one experiment involving writing messages on skin with laundry detergent struck me as questionable) but parents might want to emphasize safety rules before the fun begins. (8-14)

Dirty, Rotten, Dead? by Jerry Emory. Illustrated by T. Taylor Bruce. Harcourt Brace, 1996 (0-15-200695-8) $15.00 oversized pb

Starting out by describing all the parts of the human body which are dead--skin, nails, hair, waste products and 98% of the enamel on our teeth--this is a fascinating look at facets of the natural world we are often taught to regard with fear or distaste. "Death and life are opposites," Emory tells us. "Dead and living things are dependant on each other. You can't have one without the other." From the digestive process to the disposal of dead bodies, this book answers a lot of difficult questions while fostering a respectful--but not reverent--attitude towards nature in all its aspects. Detailed illustrations help explain the concepts and some interesting activities are described, such as how to make compost and how to test water for pollutants. A glossary and index are included, as well as a list of resources for further research. Extremely sensitive readers may have trouble with this book, but most will find it very worthwhile. Recommended for classrooms or homes. (8-12)

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