Monday, October 29, 2012

Scientists in the Field, part two

In 2011, I wrote a post on two books in the Scientists in the Field series.  I am a huge advocate for this series - I have raved about it to multiple people and at conferences ever since I first discovered it.  But I haven't written about other books in the series, even though I have continued to explore the series ever since.  I haven't written about them because I haven't found ones that were different from the series formula I had already discussed.  That doesn't mean this is a bad formula.  On the contrary, this is an well-constructed, well-thought-out formula.  All I can wish is that every middle school science classroom had the complete set on their shelves to inspire young scientists.  They show fascinating careers and scientists of all ages and cultures who are passionate about what they do.  Most importantly, they talk about the world around us in interesting ways without trivializing the science involved. The scientists profiled and the authors who create the books take the science seriously and take the time and effort to create something readable but also informative. However, I've read two contributions to the series lately that I believe should be recommended, and I want to talk about those here.

The Elephant Scientist won a Nonfiction Honor from the Horn Book magazine this year, and it is well deserved.  One of the interesting things about this book is that the scientist herself is one of the authors of the book.  Caitlin O'Connell has also taken many of the photographs of her research and field station that are featured in this book.  O'Connell has been studying elephant communication in Namibia, in Southern Africa.  She has been observing elephant behavior with a research team in hopes of deciphering the elephants' calls as well as how they are able to detect noises through vibrations in the ground.  Some of what she is researching has a very practical aspect - farmers in Namibia are frustrated because there is no way to keep elephants out of their farms, where they destroy crops both by eating them and trampling them.  O'Connell believes that elephants' calls may hold the key to protecting the farmers' crops in a non-threatening, inexpensive way.  She has been studying elephants and their behavior for quite some time, and she and Donna M. Jackson (the co-author for this title) find ways to include this incredible knowledge about elephants along with her research and methodology.  Her group creates an incredible field station, and Jackson and O'Connell describe how this field station must function in order to produce credible research, but at the same time, it must not attract negative attention from the animals they are researching.  O'Connell and Jackson also discuss elephant behaviors in this book.  One of the sections discusses male elephants (bulls) and their social structure.  While we tend to think of bulls as aggressive, they also have affiliative (bonding) behaviors and comfort behavior.  The older bull elephants help raise and guide the younger elephants, just as in the female herds.  O'Connell's love and fascination for these animals shines through on every page.  It gives this volume an almost unparalleled intimacy.

In the other volume of this series that I have been thinking about lately, Sneed B. Collard III goes to a reconstructed prairie in Iowa.  I just met Collard at the Montana State Reading Conference a couple of weeks ago.  At that time, I had this book to re-read and review on the blog, and it was hard not to mention it to him.  The grassland that was created in Iowa was the dream of Congressman Neal Smith, who believed that children should be able to see a prairie in their own state, something Iowa had very little of at that time (in the 1980's).  They created the prairie meticulously.  It was a true community effort - there are photographs here of local people helping to sow native grasses and dancing those seeds into the ground.  One of the most unique things about this book is its community - Collard doesn't just profile one scientist in this volume - instead, he emphasizes how many people maintain responsibility for this delicate ecosystem.  There is Pauline Drobney, the National Wildlife Refuge's biologist who carefully monitors the plants and native grasses of the prairie.  There is Dr. Diane Debinski, who searches for one specific butterfly (the Regal Fritillary) on the prairie.  There are the managers who keep the prairie's bison herds healthy, the volunteers who collect and provide seed... this is an ecosystem, and Collard looks at all its working parts in a very compelling way.  This story is one man's dream, but it is the community responsibility, and it brings science to life in a different way than some of the other books in the series.

One of the things that I love most about this series (and if you know me, this is no surprise) is its backmatter.  I believe strongly that students must be able to read a nonfiction title and springboard to additional resources on that subject or related subjects.  I love the bibliographies in these books.  They respect the reader - giving the reader plenty of opportunities to move past this particular volume.  And both books offer readers a diversity of materials - adult books, books written for young readers, web sites and Internet resources, and in The Elephant Scientist, DVD's too.  There are glossaries, indexes and maps to help readers visualize the subject they are learning about.

One of the other things I like most about this series is its design.  The creators of the series are very cognizant of making these books interesting to look at.  The authors and editors present information in multiple ways to readers.  There are sidebars, text boxes and extensive photo captions to pique readers' interest along with the ongoing narrative.  All books in the series are true, contemporary research projects, and as such, are illustrated primarily with rich, vivid photographs.  This choice also brings readers directly into the scientific environment.  These are high-quality books about terrific subjects.  I cannot recommend these books highly enough.

The Elephant Scientist.  Caitlin O'Connell and Donna M. Jackson; photographs by Caitlin O'Connell and Timothy Rodwell.  Houghton Mifflin, 2011.
The Prairie Builders: Reconstructing America's Lost Grasslands.  Written and photographed by Sneed B. Collard III, Houghton Mifflin, 2005.

The Elephant Scientist was loaned to me by a friend; The Prairie Builders was borrowed from the Lewis & Clark Library

Tuesday, October 23, 2012

Picture Book 10 for 10

About two months ago, I asked to participate in the Third Annual Picture Book 10 for 10 event and was happily accepted.  I had gotten as far as pulling my list together, getting ready to write the post for August 10th when I got sick.  Really sick.  Kidney stone misery. And I passed the 10th in a haze which left me unable to write or even speak coherently.  So I set the list to one side and tried not to think about it again.  Except I kept coming back to that list of my top 10 picture books and I was pretty proud of it.  I wanted to share it.  So with my apologies for the very late entry to Mandy and Cathy, here is my list.  It's mostly my favorites, but I included a couple recent favorites of Frances and Gloria, too.  Some of these are ones I've already blogged.  Some of them I will describe here for the first time.  I'm going to count down to number one, just for the thrill of it.

10. My Little Sister Ate One Hare - Bill Grossman; illustrated by Kevin Hawkes.  Have you ever read this book?  If not, here is a sample: "My little sister ate 3 ants, she even ate their underpants.  She ate 2 snakes.  She ate 1 hare.  We thought she'd throw up then and there.  But she didn't."  Hilarious.  Gross.  It's a counting book with a touch of sibling pride - the unseen sibling cannot believe all the things the sister digests...and then what she doesn't.  While the clever rhymes and gross eating are terrific (I can recite parts from memory!), Hawkes' illustrations are brilliant too.  Set as a stage show, the sister sits above the stage lights.  Children gape at her from the audience - amazed, horrified, transfixed - much as we might think of watching the tattooed woman in a sideshow.  Rich vivid colors add to the overall craziness.  I used to love to read this one at storytime, and listeners loved it too.

9. The Cazuela that the Farm Maiden Stirred - Samantha R. Vamos, illustrated by Rafael Lopez.  My original review is here.  I have blogged about this book before, so you can go there and read my gushing about it.  Last week I presented at the Montana State Reading Conference and this was one of the books that I brought with me to share.  It just reminded me how much I love this one.  I love the story, created around "The House that Jack Built" but with rice pudding.  I love the sun-drenched colors and the creative combination of the nursery rhyme with Hispanic culture.  Samantha Vamos, do you have anything new coming out soon that I can gush about?

8. I Stink! - Kate & Jim McMullan.  This is very definitely a Frances and Gloria favorite.  I've always liked it fine, but trucks aren't my favorite thing.  Then the girls checked this out of the library (along with the stellar Weston Woods/Scholastic video) and away we went.  They love the trashy alphabet (including dirty diapers, puppy poo and ugly underpants).  Gloria likes to watch our garbage truck, which comes to our complex around the time we leave on Wednesday mornings, and recite parts of the book.  We bought a board book copy for a young friend this summer, and it is definitely too long to read to a one year old.  But the garbage truck's brash personality and matter of fact work habits have become endearing to me.

7. Press Here! - Herve Tullet. This is a book I blogged about last winter, and we have looked at it again many times since then.  It truly is a magic book - the way Tullet gets engagement from the listeners is genius.  I can't believe how quickly Frances and Gloria will leap to do what the text instructs them.  The bright, primary colors set against the white page are striking, too.  It combines for an impactful book.  But it's fun, too.  We love this one!

6. The Gentleman Bug - Julian Hector.  Another book that I need my own copy of (along with Cazuela).  I talked about this book at my presentation last week and I hope people continue to love this one.  The Gentleman Bug is perfectly fine with who he is until a new Lady Bug comes in to his garden, making him believe he needs to become someone else to impress her.  There are several things that resonate with me about this story. I love the message that the Gentleman Bug is loved most when he is himself, not trying to be someone else.  I love the connection to reading and literacy.  And I love the intriguing world of bugs Hector has created.

5. Good Night, Gorilla - Peggy Rathmann.  I can't believe I've never written about this book before as it is one of my very favorites.  I have loved this sweet bedtime story about a zoo for a long time.  Then I saw the Weston Woods/Scholastic video and saw some details I had been missing in the story.  I couldn't believe a movie had added to my understanding of this story.  First of all, I love reading this story aloud.  It's a perfect example of how to read a wordless book aloud.  I love when the zookeeper's wife sleepily says good night, expecting one good night, and ends up with her eyes popping open in surprise at all the animals in her house.  I love all the small details in this book - the colored keys that match the locks on the cages, the Babar and Ernie dolls, that mischievous gorilla.  This is one of those perfect books, and multiple readings don't make the jokes any less effective.

4. Pete's a Pizza - William Steig.  This is one of Gloria's favorite books.  I love the ingenuity of the fun game the family plays.  If you don't know this one, it is a stormy day and Pete had plans to go to play outside with his friends.  In an effort to cheer him up, his parents start to make him into a pizza.  They roll him around on the table, "stretching him this way and that".  They cover him with pretend cheese, tomatoes and pepperoni.  His parents try to cook him, and when they are ready to eat... the whole book is funny and comforting at the same time. Both of my girls think this book is hilarious, and I love how free the parents feel to play with their son.  I like the simplicity of the story and how Pete's mood changes long before the weather outside.

3. Dinosaur's Binkit - Sandra Boynton.  I first met this book when I babysat for a family on Nantucket with a toddler son.  He loved this book, and soon so did I.  It isn't uproarious, totally silly humor, like many of Boynton's books.  The rhyming text is soothing and sing-song..."Dinosaur, O Dinosaur, you fuss and fret and yawn.  It's time to brush your dino teeth and put your p.j.'s on."  But the dinosaur who is being soothed to sleep will have none of it: "I NEED MY BINKIT."  He is insistent, the motherly voice persistent.  Then the binkit is found, in time for the dinosaur to curl up and go to sleep.  This story has flaps, textures and things to touch, which adds to the youngest reader's enjoyment.  I continue to give this book as a baby present.  Our copies (and yes, we have multiple copies) are tattered, but we still read them (and I can recite this from memory at the drop of a hat).

2. The Frances books - Russell Hoban, illustrated by Garth Williams, Lillian Hoban.  I am probably cheating by including all of these picture books here, but I can't help it.  As you know, these books are near and dear to my heart.  After all, I even nicknamed my girls after those stories.  And I can't even say I have one particular favorite.  I love Bedtime for Frances with the father threatening Frances to get her to go to bed, clearly at the end of his rope.  I love A Bargain for Frances, with that coveted blue china tea set.  I love Best Friends for Frances, with the amazing picnic their mother packs for Frances and Gloria.  These books with their gentle lessons never go out of style.  In fact, they are necessary reading at our house again right now for some reminders of how to behave.  Another set of books I talked about last week in my presentation.

1. I'm sure you have been holding your breath, waiting to see my number one book...and here it is.  Goodnight Moon - Margaret Wise Brown
This is another book I am surprised I have never mentioned on my blog before.  I have a deep, abiding love for Margaret Wise Brown.  I love her books and Goodnight Moon is my favorite of all.  At my last children's library, I read this at the end of every pajama storytime, with my voice getting softer with every page.  I read this to Frances every night while I was pregnant with Gloria, and Gloria still can be soothed by this book at four years old.  It is a magical, cozy tale, with the perspective getting more and more focused as the objects become more and more abstract.  This is the perfect good night book, and my perfect number one. Goodnight noises everywhere.