What Makes a Monster? By Jess Keating, illustrated by David DeGrand

Published by Knopf Books for Young Readers

Summary:  From the team that brought you Pink Is for Blobfish comes this collection of animals that can seem “monstrous”.  Each two-page spread features a photo of the animal, a brief description of the animal and what makes dangerous or deadly, a sidebar with facts like diet and habitat, and another interesting fact or two.  Many of the animals have monster-sounding names like the assassin bug, the horror frog, and the tyrant leech king.  And some of them are downright creepy, like the cordyceps fungus that takes over insects’ brains, causing them to self-destruct.  The final page is the seemingly obligatory inclusion of humans with a catalog of how we are wreaking havoc on the planet.  Includes a page connecting animals to famous monsters (e.g., Dracula and the vampire bat), a page explaining how what we see as scary is really an animal’s way of protecting itself, and a glossary.  48 pages; grades 1-4.

Pros:  The gross-out factor combined with striking graphics and appealing page layouts makes this a surefire nonfiction hit.

Cons:  An introductory page would have been nice to give an overview of the book before diving into the first animal.

Dazzle Ships: World War I and the Art of Confusion by Chris Barton, illustrated by Victo Ngai

Published by Millbrook Press

Summary:  During World War I, Great Britain was desperate to find a way to protect its ships from German torpedoes.  Desperate enough to consider training seagulls or sea lions to spot submarines, or to have swimmers try to smash the subs’ periscopes.  But then a Royal Navy officer had an idea to camouflage the ships.  The camouflage, however, wasn’t to make the ships blend in with their surroundings, but rather to use brilliant patterns to break up the shape of the boats and confuse the Germans looking at them through their periscopes.  The Navy hired teams of women to come in and “dazzle” many of its ships.  The U.S. copied the idea, and over 4,000 ships were painted before the end of the war in 1918.  Did this method really work?  The verdict is still out; more ships did avoid torpedoes, but there were other tactics used like convoys and depth charges that might have been more effective.  The dazzle ships do celebrate, in an eye-catching way, the power of creative thinking and problem solving.  Includes notes from the author and illustrator with more history and a description of how they created this book, as well as a timeline of WWI events, and some photos of Wilkinson, his team of painters, and one of their ships.  36 pages; grades 2-5.

Pros:  An fascinating bit of little-known military history, illustrated with amazing art nouveau paintings that celebrate patterns and the art of the time.  I would love to see this considered for a Caldecott.

Cons:  It was disappointing to learn that the dazzle ships might not have actually prevented any torpedo attacks.

How Many Guinea Pigs Can Fit on a Plane? Answers to Your Most Clever Math Questions by Laura Overdeck

Published by Feiwel and Friends

Summary:  From the creator of the Bedtime Math books and website comes this collection of questions submitted by real kids and answered using math.  The answer to the question in the title is found using the dimensions of a guinea pig, calculating how many could fit in one cubic foot, then showing how many cubic feet are in a 747 jet.  And that would be 472,500 guinea pigs.  The cute and eye-catching illustrations of guinea pigs show their measurements in all directions.  There’s even an interesting non-math fact thrown in (guinea pigs prefer company so much that in Switzerland it’s illegal to own a single pig).  Questions are divided into five chapters: Animal Math, Nature Gone Wild (“Which wind blows faster, a tornado or a hurricane?”), Math for Your Mouth (“How much food do we eat every day?”), Your Life in Numbers (“When will I be a billion seconds old?”), and Earth and Friends (“How many soccer balls will fit inside a hollow Earth?”).  The final section, “Now Do It In Your Head!” shows some tricks for quick mental math calculations.  144 pages; grades 2-6.

Pros:  Kids will be drawn into this book by the questions, and even those who claim to dislike math will follow along with the calculations to see how to find the final answer.  Check out the website (www.bedtimemath.org) for more mathematical fun.

Cons:  I wish there were more awesome kids’ math books like this being published.

Shell Beak Tusk: Shared Traits and the Wonders of Adaptation by Bridget Heos

Published by HMH Books for Young Readers

Summary:  Porcupines and echidnas both have spiky spines.  Turtles and snails both have shells.  Yet these animals aren’t related to each other, and, in the case of the porcupine and echidna, don’t live on the same continents.  Animals often evolve with shared traits, even if they’re not closely related.  Each two-page spread shows a photograph of both of the animals with a paragraph about that animal and the trait the two share.  The first and last page give additional information about adaptation and evolution.  Includes a pretty extensive bibliography and an index.  32 pages; grades 1-4.

Pros:  The large, colorful photos provide a draw to pick up this book.  The idea of shared traits is an interesting concept that could be extended by having kids think of and research other animals who have shared traits.

Cons:  The writing and format are pretty straightforward, and may not have as much appeal as some flashier books about animals.

Far Apart, Close in Heart: Being a Family When a Loved One is Incarcerated by Becky Birtha, illustrated by Maja Kastelic

Published by Albert Whitman and Co.

Summary:  What does it feel like to have a parent in jail, and how do you deal with those feelings?  The children in this book all react differently to their parents’ incarceration.  They feel scared, angry, and confused.  One girl wonders if it was her fault her mom went to jail.  A boy’s mom begs him not to tell anyone about his dad, so he stops talking altogether.  Another girl’s family is torn apart when her mom gets arrested and sent to jail, just like her dad.  Kids are encouraged to share their feelings with other adults in their lives, and to try to stay in touch with their incarcerated parents through visits, or, if that’s not possible, phone calls and letters.  One mom writes to assure her daughter that, “You and I may be far apart, but you’re always close to me in heart.”  Includes an author’s note and tips for adults from the National Resource Center on Children and Families of the Incarcerated.  32 pages; ages 4-8.

Pros:  A useful and engaging book to help kids feel more accepting of having a parent in prison, and to learn how to deal with their feelings about it.

Cons:  With nine kids featured, there were a lot of people to keep track of in such a short book.

The Quilts of Gee’s Bend by Susan Goldman Rubin

Published by Harry N. Abrams

Summary:  In 1845, plantation owner Mark Pettway moved his plantation to Gee’s Bend Alabama.  When the Civil War ended, the former slaves from that plantation stayed and formed a community that still exists today.  The women of Gee’s Bend have made quilts for generations, primarily to keep warm in the drafty cabins they lived in on the plantation, but also as a form of creative expression.  The history of this community and their quilts includes a visit from Martin Luther King, Jr. and participation by many in the Civil Rights movement.  The quilts were “discovered” in the 1960’s, and the women formed a collective that for a few years produced items to be sold in Bloomingdales and Saks Fifth Avenue.  In 2002, art collector Bill Arnett helped organize a quilt exhibit at New York City’s Whitney Museum, attracting record-breaking crowds.  The acclaim has helped the women to see their work as an art form that reflects the history of their unique community.  Includes instructions for making a quilt square, bibliography, and index.  56 pages; grades 5-8.

Pros:  The story is fascinating, but the real attraction of this book is the gorgeous full-page color photos of the quilts.

Cons:  The photo on page 8 appears to have been mislabeled with the wrong date.

Two Truths and A Lie: It’s Alive! by Ammi-Joan Paquette and Laurie Ann Thompson, illustrated by Lisa K. Weber

Published by Walden Pond Press

Summary:  “Two truths and a lie” used to be a dinnertime staple in our family, as I tried to ensnare my hapless young children into believing a convincing-sounding falsehood about my day.  The co-authors of the first entry in this series use their powers for good, telling three brief tales from the natural world, only two of which are true. For instance, in the first section, there are stories about a plant whose roots sometimes resemble a person, a forest whose trees all sprout from the same root system, and the secret lives of plants (how they learn and communicate).  Turn to the back to learn that the first one is false, although it’s based on pictures that can be found on the Internet.  Other chapters delve more into plants, then move on to animals and humans.  These authors are serious about doing good research, as they include a research guide and a 17-page bibliography.  Also includes an index.  176 pages; grades 3-7.

Two pros and a con:  This is a great resource to use to encourage critical thinking, particularly about what can be found on the Internet.  Both the writing style and illustrations are easygoing and engaging.  The story about the headless chicken that lived for years is just gross, although (spoiler alert) true.