This is a straight-up biography of the German Shepherd who became the first canine movie star, back in the days of silent moview. Along the way it suggests a bit about the biography of the couple who adopted him and trained him to act in the movies, but the focus remains on Strongheart. The voice is authoritative and documentary, and the book is lots of fun for animal-lovers.

The illustrations are lots of fun, and let us bask in the Roaring Twenties.

Strongheart: The World’s First Movie Star Dog, by Emily Arnold McCully. Henry Holt: 2014







I loved this collection of poems, each about a different species of bird. The language was vivid and evocative, the rhythms and rhymes surprising and satisfying. Plus, all the poems were short.

This would be a great read-aloud, both at home and school, and a great mentor text before going outside to do nature drawing and writing. Plus, the poems are really fun!  Just one to whet your appetite:

The Oriole and the Woodpecker

Music lovers fast await

the first duet

of summer.

Oriole is vocalist.

Woodpecker is drummer.

On the Wing by David Elliott, illustrated by  Becca Stadtlander. Candlewick: 2014.



I was fascinated by the structure of this story. The first half of the book seems to be a natural history of peregrine falcons. We see a pair return to their nest, watch the male display for the female, and see them hunt. We see the mother lay a clutch of eggs.

Then, suddenly, there is a human in the illustration. She’s rapelling down the side of the cliff, where the nest is, and she steals the eggs! We’re as mystified as the birds, but they get on with their lives and lay a second clutch of eggs. Tragically, all but one of the eggs breaks before chicks hatch.

And there, in the middle of the book, we move away from the natural history and learn about what made the falcon eggs so dangerously thin and brittle: the pesticide DDT. We watch a protest against DDT, and breathe in relief as it is banned.

In the concluding section of the book, we see what the scientists are doing to help the peregrine falcons recover. We get to see those chicks, hatched from the stolen eggs, and watch how the scientists work with them to preserve their species.

The illustrations of the peregrine falcons are beautiful, and it’s a fascinating and inspiring book that gets into the nuts and bolts of what it takes to help a species back from the brink of extinction.

Skydiver: Saving the Fastest Bird in the World, by Celia Godkin. Pajama Press: 2014.


“Every September the great white sharks return to San Francisco. Their hunting grounds, the Farallon Islands, are just thirty miles from the city. While their 800,000 human neighbors dine on steak, salad, and sandwiches, the white sharks hunt for their favorite meal.”

This opening catapults us into the hunt. And what are those great white sharks hunting for? Katherine Roy builds up suspense with a series of brilliant page turns (in which I was wondering–is it people?) until we see that they are hunting seals.

After that engaging, page-turning opening, the book is organized to give us details, page by page, of the process of a shark actually consuming that yummy prey, the seal. We learn why the seal is an ideal food source for the shark, how the shark’s body helps him move as a hunter, how the shark’s jaws actually function during an attack, and much, much more.

There’s even a subplot to this book! Just when it feels like the book is coming to an end, Roy introduces the scientists who are trying to study the sharks, and we learn how they study them and what they’ve learned from those studies.

Roy’s watercolor illustrations are gorgeous (even if they are a bit gory). The book is absorbing and fascinating–a definite page turner!

Neighborhood Sharks: Hunting with the Great Whites of California’s Farallon Islands, by Katherine Roy. Roaring Brook Press: 2014.


This collection of short, accessible poems soars! Each spread features an illustration of a different species of bird and a poem about them. The longest poem is 19 lines, the shortest 3. There is rhythm and there is rhyme, but both are always subjugated to the brilliant images Elliott is painting with words.

The Cardinal

He’s a hotshot


She’s a Plain Jane.

But one without…

the other…

a song with no refrain.

Since I picked up this book, I’ve been seeing something different when I look at the sparrows in the bush outside my window. It’s a great book to share with kids who love to watch birds, or to share to help them really see the birds they watch.

On the Wing, by David Elliott, illustrated by Becca Stadtlander. Candlewick: 2014.


I was hesitant to read this picture book as I expected it to be a cynical rewriting of the Newbery Medal novel, The One and Only Ivan. So I was surprised that the only reference to the novel appeared on the cover, and that was almost incidental (“by Newbery medalist Katherine Applegate). Even the illustrator for this book is different from the illustrator for the novel.

This is an honest, straightforward biography of a gorilla who was displayed most of his life in a shopping center but ended his life in the Atlanta Zoo. The book starts poetically, “In leafy calm, in gentle arms, a gorilla’s life begins,” but the narrative voice in the rest of the book is much more matter-of-fact.

This book would pair well with the Newbery novel, but it’s fine by itself, as a look at how our attitudes toward animals in captivity have changed in recent times.

Ivan: The Remarkable True Story of the Shopping Mall Gorilla by Katherine Applegate, illustrated by G. Brian Karas. Clarion: 2014.

“Who taught you to do things? Your parents and others who care about you were your first teachers. Who teaches animals?”

Each spread of this book explores a different animal which has to learn a survival behavior after it is born. It’s a layered text–you can read just the large font text and have it make sense, but the small font text adds information and depth. And each spread ends with questions inviting the listener to apply the text to herself:

Are you a good singer? Who sings to you?

The paper in this book is luscious to touch–thick, slightly textured. Beautiful. Are Blue Apple Books always so satisfying to hold?

Animal Teachers by Janet Halfmann, illustrated by Katy Hudson. Blue Apple: 2014.


This book is built around an insight so obvious you’ve probably never thought about it. I hadn’t! Despite what we teach toddlers, bunnies don’t only hop and birds don’t only fly. All living creatures move in different ways at different times. Page builds that insight into her clever structure: we see each featured animal move in two different ways, and the second way it moves is the first way the next featured animal moves. Such a simple and elegant structure, and so effective!

A spread at the end gives a little more detail about each animal. Steve Jenkins’ illustrations and the book design are gorgeous.

Move! by Robin Page, illustrated by Steve Jenkins. Houghton Mifflin: 2006.