Wednesday, July 3, 2013

Big Beasts: Eagle, Polar Bear, Tiger, Whale

So as you all know by now, I've become much more focused on children's nonfiction in the last few years.  I went from having very little interest in nonfiction to wanting to find all the latest, greatest, and the unusual nonfiction - the nonfiction that stands out  from the crowd.  So when I got an email earlier this spring that School Library Journal was hosting a webinar called "What's the Buzz? New Books in Nonfiction", I thought I needed to attend.  Unfortunately, my day job comes first, and a meeting was scheduled at the same time as the webinar.  Luckily, School Library Journal offered an archived version.  It still took me weeks to find time to watch it. When I watched the webinar, I had my library's website and Amazon open at the same time, so I could check for many of the books mentioned from Scholastic, Capstone and DK.  We've already read and enjoyed many of them, including some Star Wars books (Frances and Gloria have become Star Wars fans this spring) that we've ended up buying.

But the publisher that most intrigued me was Black Rabbit Books.  I've been in the library world for a long time, and I wasn't familiar with them.  My public library didn't have any of the titles in their catalog.  But the nonfiction that was highlighted in the webinar seemed to fit very nicely with both my girls' reading levels and interests.  So I did something I rarely do, and requested them from the publisher for review.  I was really delighted to receive some of the books for review, and also really pleased to write about them here.

I was sent four books in the Big Beasts series, written by Stephanie Turnbull - Whale, Tiger, Eagle and Polar Bear.  Frances will be going into first grade in the fall, and I thought these might be a good fit for her reading level.  And they are.  Each book is set up in a similar way.  It starts with a statement about the animal or bird about how large they are (tying back into the series title).  Then there are two-page sections with groups of facts organized by a heading.  For instance, in Eagle, there is a section titled Dinner Time!  There are three facts about eagles and their feeding patterns on the double-page spread.  There is a large, clear photograph of the eagle, swooping down into a body of water.  There are also smaller photographs of some of the eagle's prey.  The facts usually tie together clearly and  flow naturally.  The language is concise but exciting.  On the Dinner Time! page, Turnbull includes the fact "They swoop down faster than a speeding car and grab prey in their long talons. " (p. 11).  These are perfect facts for young readers - written at their level and also written in a way that helps them visualize animals they will most likely never see up close.

At the end of each of the four books, there is a spread of BIG facts about the big beast.  Three of the four books I was sent use fabulous graphics to illustrate these BIG facts.  "Polar bears can be longer than you and a friend lying end to end." (p. 22) is illustrated with a photograph of two children stretched out.  Again, these graphics really help new readers envision these facts in a very concrete way.  A picture of a house illustrates the fact that a whale's spout of air and spray shoots higher than a house.  I found most of these BIG facts incredibly informative and well-done.  Tiger, however, just had a list of facts without all the same types of connections made for readers.

All of the books have a variety of photographs on every page.   These photographs all show the animals and birds in the wild, not in zoos, so readers can see them in their own habitats.  As I mentioned earlier, the books include information about the animals' feeding habits.  Photographs of the polar bear and tiger show them bloodied by their kills.  I think these photographs can also be attractive to some readers - they like to see the blood and gore!  The photographs are clear and vivid and demonstrate the Big Beasts' behaviors.

I was surprised by the breadth of facts included in these books.  I was also surprised by what I learned about animals I would have thought I knew everything about.  I really thought that a book aimed at kindergarten and first graders wouldn't have anything new to offer me.  But I learned at least one new thing from every book.  Did you know tigers have three different kinds of teeth for three separate tasks (biting, tearing and slicing)?  I didn't.  Or that polar bears roll on snow to dry their fur after getting out of the water?  I always advocate for adults to read children's nonfiction too, and this series is a great example of how much we can learn, even when the facts are presented in a simple manner.

My favorite book of the four is Whale.  It covered many different kinds of whales, and included lots of fascinating facts about whales.  But all of them are great.  Each book ends with an index, a glossary of "useful words" and a web link to help set the bar for nonfiction for young children.  I am happy to see that information for these young readers still takes the idea of back matter seriously.  I really like this series - I know Frances' school would love to have them, but I'm sure I can part with these books yet!

Eagle.  Stephanie Turnbull.  Black Rabbit Books: Smart Apple Media, 2013.
Polar Bear.  Stephanie Turnbull.  Black Rabbit Books: Smart Apple Media, 2013.
Tiger.  Stephanie Turnbull.  Black Rabbit Books: Smart Apple Media, 2013.
Whale.  Stephanie Turnbull.  Black Rabbit Books: Smart Apple Media, 2013.

books sent by the publisher for review

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