Several books about animals are featured in this month’s round-up of recent nonfiction picture books. I hope these brief descriptions are useful as you select books for your school or family collections. You will be able to tell which ones were my favorites, but each is worthwhile in its own way.
Follow the Moon Home: A Tale of One Idea, Twenty Kids, and a Hundred Sea Turtles by Philippe Cousteau
Baby sea turtles have always struck me as sort of mystical. They emerge from being buried in sand and follow moonlight reflecting on water into the sea where they spend most of their lives, returning to land only to bury their own eggs on a sandy beach. Somewhere in there is a myth waiting to be unraveled.
In Follow the Moon Home, Philippe Cousteau (grandson of Jacques) and Deborah Hopkinson use the inherently interestingly baby loggerhead turtles as the basis of a larger story about problem-solving. Vivienne’s class at school is searching for a community action project. Then Viv and a classmate stumble on the dilemma of baby loggerheads confusing brightly lit rental properties with moonlight and heading away from the water instead of toward it. The class decides to research and solve this problem, resulting in a story full of positive outcomes for turtles, class members, and the community.
Illustrator Meilo’s So’s sun-washed and moonlit beach scenes beautifully accompany this appealing picture book about nature and activism.
Swimming with Sharks: The Daring Discoveries of Eugenie Clark by Heather Lang
The murky illustrations in Swimming with Sharks effectively convey the underwater world of sharks, a domain that Eugenie Clark made her life’s work. Beginning with Clark’s childhood shark fascination, this picture book biography emphasizes important lessons about turning a passion into a profession, and underscores how academic and occupational expectations for girls and women have changed since the 1930s.
The Polar Bear by Jenni Desmond
A whimsical frame story about a little girl who likes to read about polar bears is wrapped around somewhat dense text that lacks a distinctive voice. This picture book’s strongest features are its interesting illustrations and the wealth of facts about polar bears.
Sea Otter Heroes: The Predators That Saved an Ecosystem by Patricia Newman
Sea Otter Heroes has an interesting story to tell. The ecosystem of California’s Elkhorn Slough showed some abnormalities. The seagrass was unusually healthy, considering the pollution that drained into the slough. As marine biologist Brent Hughes investigated, he found complex relationships among various plant and animal species in the region, including sea otters. Sea Otter Heroes emphasizes the scientific methodology involved in Hughes’s work, and thoroughly explains the connections between the biota under study. The sea otters are important players in the story, but they are not the primary focus suggested by the title.
Despite the appeal of the animal story, Sea Otter Heroes has some problems, including dense text, extraneous charts, and photographs that are too small for a picture book format. Some pages are simply wall-to-wall text, including all or parts of up to eight paragraphs. At least one chart shows no relationship between the elements it is demonstrating. While some of the photographs are intriguing or appealing, most are less than one-fourth of a page and dwarfed by the text. Too many of the photos show humans using tools rather than animals in the wild. These editorial missteps weaken a book that could have been more engaging.
Only the most earnest young scientists are likely to stick with Sea Otter Heroes. More casual readers will likely glance at some of the photos and move on to other books.
John Ronald’s Dragons: The Story of J. R. R. Tolkien by Caroline McAlister
John Ronald’s Dragons is an engaging, enthusiastic picture book biography of J. R. R. Tolkien, focused on his childhood, although it reaches his creation of The Hobbit. Dragons were central in the imagination of young John Ronald, and although his fascination ebbed and flowed as he matured, they never quite went away. Informed by his life experiences—serving in World War I, starting a family—the stories we know as Tolkien’s Middle Earth saga eventually take form complete with the dragon that lurked so long in Tolkien’s imagination.
John Ronald’s Dragons will appeal to young readers who know the movie versions of Tolkien’s work or those interested in fantasy or the writing life. The illustrations serviceably support the story, but I wonder about the choice to cast so many of them in pale greens and yellows.
Mickey Mantle: The Commerce Comet by Jonah Winter
The rough stuff in Mickey Mantle’s life is addressed in the front matter’s fine print, which is a good editorial choice for this picture book celebrating the career of one of the all-time great baseball players. The primary text focuses on the inspirational aspects of Mantle’s life and career: battling through disappointments, coming back from injuries, and working hard on his skills, especially switch-hitting. I hope Mickey Mantle: The Commerce Comet inspires young readers to find out more about other great players from yesteryear mentioned in Mantle’s story, including Joe DiMaggio, Willie Mays, and Bob Feller. Author Jonah Winter adds several flourishes to the text that would make it an appealing read-aloud. My only issue is how the narration goes back and forth between past tense and present tense. That unnecessary distraction took me out of the narrative’s flow. The artwork is one of the book’s strengths. Just look at all the ways that C. F. Payne uses light. Payne’s faces are interesting caricatures, except for one dramatic, realistic portrait of Mantle on the final two-page spread.
Patrick and the President by Ryan Tubridy
An excellent choice for St. Patrick’s Day, Ryan Tubridy’s Patrick and the President is a historical fiction picture book that “reimagines” President John F. Kennedy’s 1963 trip to Wexford, the small Irish village that is the Kennedy ancestral home. The excitement surrounding President Kennedy’s visit is conveyed through Patrick, a Wexford school boy who is not only a member of the children’s choir in the welcoming ceremony but also a server at the tea hosted by President Kennedy’s Irish relatives. (Patrick’s involvement in two different events of the presidential visit struck me as a bit of a stretch.) P. J. Lynch’s wonderfully warm and nostalgic illustrations do much of the book’s work in showing the enthusiasm of the townspeople, especially the children, and the cool charm of President Kennedy.
Round by Joyce Sidman
Our narrator begins by saying, “I love round things,” and then points out all the things in nature that are round. But I’m not sure all these things are “round.” Is a mushroom round? How about a ladybug? Stars? As a child experiencing this book, I would have said, “Wait a minute. Why is that round?” Each illustration is distinctive and detailed, but even some of these do not carry the text’s claims concerning roundness. Maybe Round can be used to spark discussions about how to define a concept, but I found it a little frustrating. Then again, I might be thinking too hard about this. The back matter has interesting explanations about why roundness is common in nature.
Same Kind of Different As Me for Kids by Ron Hall
Well, there is a nice little message at the end of this book. It’s actually on the back cover too: “Nobody can help everybody, but everybody can help somebody.” As a picture book though, the story is kind of flat and actually hard to believe. The drawings are interesting, but Denver—the subject of the book and its co-author—looks completely different in some illustrations from how he appears in others. The narrative takes Denver from his life as a sharecropper’s son to homelessness to a career in art. The good things that happen to him are attributed to religious interventions from God, angels, and benevolent people who find him. The book might be a nice allegory or keepsake—the front endsheet has a “Presented To” template–but honestly, I don’t think this is a book that kids will return to over and over.
(Some of these reviews appeared on Goodreads in slightly different form.)