rothThis inspiring book works at lots of different levels for lots of different readers. First, it’s a simple cumulative story for preschoolers, like “This is the house that Jack Built”:

“This is the tree, a mangrove tree.

These are the trees, mangrove trees, that were planted by the sea.”

And so on, we hear the story of mangrove trees being planted to reclaim marginal land.

This first, simple level, works as a read-aloud. But the authors also include on every page a sidebar that tells in more detail about the initiative to reclaim land in Eritrea to fight against famine. Parents and older kids would gobble up these details.

And finally, the back matter (8 pages of text and photos!) tells the story of the American scientist, Gordon Sato, who dreamt up the idea of relieving hunger by planting these trees and about how his experiences in an internment camp during World War II led to this idea. I felt inspired and uplifted by his vision and his tenacity.

The Mangrove Tree: Planting Trees to Feed Families, by Susan L. Roth and Cindy Trumbore. Lee & Low: 2011.



Ben Franklin  This book is based on a passage in a letter (helpfully included in the book’s back matter) where Franklin describes his youthful invention of a swimming aid: swim fins and flippers! Using that single paragraph as her starting point, Barb Rosenstock imagines the process young Ben Franklin–or anyone–would follow to invent something new.

The book is a buoyant read. Every page is filled with “s” alliteration in lists of verbs telling what Franklin did to develop his invention:

speculated…stared…sprinted away

sketched…snapped up…shaped…sanded…strung on…strapped on

sprinted…stood…stripped off…strapped…stuck…spread…stomped…splashed in…sunk

And this is just the beginning of the “s” lists! Many of the verbs are helpfully highlighted, which would make this book a dream to teach in a lesson on alliteration.

Ben’s invention doesn’t really work that well. In fact, you could say it was a belly flop. But Rosenstock’s text leaves us with a shiver of giddiness rather than a feeling of defeat.

It’s a fun story about the process of invention, the scientific method, and one of America’s founding father. What’s not to like?

Ben Franklin’s Big Splash: The Mostly True Story of His First Invention by Barb Rosenstock, illustrated by S.D. Schindler. Calkins Creek: 2014

Sagan  I’m sometimes surprised by the topics that pop up in nonfiction picture books. Carl Sagan seems to me more like newspaper material than history book fodder, but to an audience of four to eight year olds, he’s just as much The Past as are George Washington and Julius Caesar. After all, he died years and years before they were born, clear back in 1996.

This playful biography uses surprising turns of language and the charming refrain, “Wowie!” to capture Sagan’s zest for explaining astrophysics to a lay audience. The book starts with  Sagan’s childhood fascinations and moves on to his college studies and then his professional career.

I loved the way the book used page turns to surprise and delight. In the first example, the child Sagan is testing the limits of his imagination:

His favorite character, John Carter could stand with his arms outstretched and wish himself to Mars…[page turn] But nothing happened.

Later, the page turn manages to encapsulate years and years of adult work:

He studied life and space and became…[page turn]…Dr. Carl Sagan.

The illustrations are cartoony and fun (and require you at one point to turn the book on its side and open a gatefold). The back matter tells about how the author got interested in the topic and gives a great “Notes” section where the sources for the book’s contents are given page by page. Wowie!

Star Stuff: Carl Sagan and the Mysteries of the Cosmos by Stephanie Roth Sisson. Roaring Brook Press: 2014.

In writing biography, it’s tempting to start at your subject’s birth and finish at your subject’s death. But usually that’s not the structure that will best tell the story.

In this biography of an astronomer, the book starts with her gazing at the stars as a child and wondering about them. We see her work to learn the answers to her questions, and the book concludes as she publishes an academic paper to answer those questions. The beginning and ending relate directly to the story Burleigh’s telling. Sure, a lot of Leavitt’s life is left out, but the book feels complete because it tells one story, beginning to end.

The book is a great look at a girl growing up to be a scientist. The extensive back matter profiles other female astronomers as well.

Look Up! Henrietta Leavitt, Pioneering Woman Astronomer by Robert Burleigh, illustrated by Raul Colon. Simon & Schuster, 2013.



Happy Halloween!

Books in the Scientist in the Field series look and feel like a picture book (albeit hefty ones at 80 pages). They get shelved with nonfiction picture books. But inside, they’re middle grade material, complete with chapters.

They’re also totally engaging. Every chapter in this book features a different scientist working on some aspect of bat conservation. The photos are wonderful and the text accessible. It’s not a read aloud, but by the time I was finished, I was starting to plan how to build a bat house for my backyard.

And if you enjoy The Bat Scientists, be sure to check out The Case of the Vanishing Little Brown Bats: A Scientific Mystery,  by Sandra Markle, another middle grade read masquerading as a picture book. Its gripping true story will have you cheering for the bats around you.

The Bat Scientists by Mary Kay Carson, photos by Tom Uhlman. Houghton Mifflin, 2013.