How Old Is a Whale? Animal Life Spans from the Mayfly to the Immortal Jellyfish by Lily Murray, illustrated by Jesse Hodgson

Published by Big Picture Press

Summary:  From the mayfly (5 minutes to 24 hours) and the honeybee (5 to 7 weeks) to the glass sponge (11,000 years) and the immortal jellyfish (in some sense, forever), this book takes a look at the lifespans of a wide variety of animals.  Each two-page spread shows the animal in its habitat with several paragraphs of information about the it over the course of its lifespan.  The introduction raises interesting questions about lifespans, and the final two pages show all the animals with a list of where to find them in the book.  64 pages; grades 1-5.

Pros:  This engaging book will intrigue all kinds of animal lovers.  I found the animals with the shortest and longest lifespans to be the most fascinating, but all of them had some pretty interesting information.

Cons:  One of my favorite books to read to kids is Steve Jenkins’s Biggest, Strongest, Fastest, which states that the animal that lives the longest is the Galapagos tortoise, with a lifespan of 150 years.  This book listed animals that live even longer.

The Last Plastic Straw: A Plastic Problem and Finding Ways to Fix It by Dee Romito, illustrated by Ziyue Chen

Published by Holiday House

Summary:  Straws have been around since Queen Puabi, Queen of Ur, used a gold tube to slurp up the barley-based drink Sumerians were partial to 5,000 years ago (her subjects just used reeds).  Dr. Marvin Stone patented a paper straw in 1888, created to sip his mint julep, and Joseph Friedman invented the first bendy straw in 1937.  The post-World War II plastics boom led to the sturdier plastic straws that are still ubiquitous today and that are adding tons of microplastic pollution to the planet.  In 2011, 11-year-old Milo Cress started his “Be Straw Free” campaign to cut back on the 500 million straws Americans toss out each day.  It’s a small change, but an important one for all of us to make.  Includes an author’s note that gives additional information about straws and other single-use plastics, a list of sources, and an index.  40 pages; grades 1-5.

Pros:  A fascinating history of the straw that easily leads to a discussion of single-use plastics and how to cut back on your own personal use.  A great Earth Day read-aloud!

Cons:  I really enjoy using plastic straws.  Guess I will just have to suck it up.

Making More: How Life Begins by Katherine Roy

Published by Norton Young Readers

Summary:  A family that’s expecting a baby is out for a hike, where they see signs of reproduction all around them: a robin building a nest, two snakes mating, a deer with her fawn.  From there, the text and illustrations proceed to an explanation of reproduction that covers all sorts of living things, both animals and plants.  Beginning with the process of fertilizing an egg cell, the story moves to embryonic development, then birth.  There’s information on genes and how they create diversity within a species.  The final gatefold spread shows the human family celebrating their new baby at an outdoor party, with some of the animals from the text visible in the background.  72 pages; grades 3-6.

Pros:  An outstanding introduction to reproduction with a lot of technical information explained in terms that will be understandable to upper elementary and middle school readers.  The illustrations are excellent as well, celebrating the diversity of life on Earth.

Cons:  I’m sure the pictures of rabbits and snakes mating will cause some in the book censoring world to break into a sweat.

The Fire of Stars: The Life and Brilliance of the Woman Who Discovered What Stars Are Made Of by Kirsten W. Larson, illustrated by Katherine Roy

Published by Chronicle Books

Summary:  Cecilia Payne’s curiosity about the natural world didn’t get much support when she was growing up in England.  Her family moved from the country, where she loved to explore nature, to London so her brother could go to school in the city.  Cecilia was sent to a religious school that didn’t offer any of the math and science classes that she loved.  She went on to study at Cambridge, where she switched her focus from botany to astronomy after hearing a talk by astronomer Arthur Eddington.  There was no place for her at Cambridge after graduation, so she moved to the other Cambridge (Harvard), where she was surrounded by like-minded women scientists.  Persistence with her research paid off as she made important discoveries about what the stars are made of, discoveries that fired up her imagination to ask even more questions.  Includes additional information about both Cecilia Payne and the birth of stars, as well as a timeline and a bibliography.  48 pages; grades 2-5.

Pros:  This fascinating biography is enhanced by the beautiful illustrations that show the parallels between Cecilia Payne’s life and the birth of a star.  A great read for Women’s History Month.

Cons:  There wasn’t much about Payne’s research after she discovered what stars are made of, a discovery she made at the age of 25.

Hidden Hope: How a Toy and a Hero Saved Lives During the Holocaust by Elisa Boxer, illustrated by Amy June Bates

Published by Harry N. Abrams

Summary:  Jacqueline Gauthier was a French teenager working with the Resistance during World War II.  She used a hollowed-out toy duck to smuggle papers to Jews who needed to change their identities to survive, eventually saving over 200 lives.  Jacqueline herself had changed her identity from Judith Geller to hide the fact that she was Jewish.  In addition to her work smuggling papers, she was hiding her parents and brother, having to find enough food to keep them all alive as she rode her bicycle for miles each day all over Paris.  Despite some close calls, Jacqueline/Judith survived to see the end of the war and the liberation of the people she had saved.  Includes two-page notes from both the author and illustrator with additional information about Judith and a list of additional resources.  48 pages; grades 3-6.

Pros:  This exciting story is told in spare, poetic text that conveys the danger Judith faced and the courage that kept her going for the long years of the war.  

Cons:  The only photo provided is from war-era identification papers.  I’m guessing there aren’t others available, but I would have loved to have seen more.

The Sky Is Not the Limit by Jérémie Decalf

Published by Eerdmans Books for Young Readers

Summary:  The space probe Voyager 2 narrates its journey from assembly to rocket launch to outer space.  It flies by Jupiter, Saturn, Uranus, and Neptune, with pages of black, starry space to show the distance and time between planets.  Finally, it heads for interstellar space, where our sun is just another star.  Both Voyager 2 and its twin Voyager 1 carry a Golden Record filled with photographs and recordings from Earth.  Includes a page and a half of additional information, the NASA website where updates and photos can be seen, and a map of the solar system on both sets of endpapers. Translated from French. 64 pages; grades 1-4.

Pros:  The simple, lyrical text and incredible illustrations that beautifully capture the vastness and wonder of space.  

Cons:  Readers will no doubt be left with plenty of questions about this amazing journey, so it would have been nice to have more additional resources.

Jovita Wore Pants: The Story of a Mexican Freedom Fighter by Aida Salazar, illustrated by Molly Mendoza

Published by Scholastic Press

Summary:  Jovita wanted to wear pants, but girls growing up in 1910’s rural Mexico were expected to wear dresses.  She played with her brothers every chance she got, learning about the countryside: how to find food and water, where dangerous animals lived, and how to read the weather.  When revolution came to her village, her father and brothers joined the fight, but Jovita wasn’t allowed to.  War brought one tragedy after another, as her house was burned down, she was captured and held hostage for a time, and her father and brothers were killed.  After their deaths, Jovita cut her hair, put on pants, and joined the revolution as a soldier named Juan.  Her knowledge of the countryside made her a natural leader, and she fought for six years before finally agreeing to a truce with the government.  The President of Mexico was so impressed with her fighting skills that he invited her to a meeting.  She went on her own terms, still wearing the pants she loved.  Includes five pages of additional information with photos, plus notes from the author and illustrator.  48 pages; grades 1-5.

Pros:  Badass doesn’t begin to describe Jovita Valdovinos, whose legendary feats make for inspiring Women’s History Month reading.  The colorful illustrations capture her energy, and the additional information makes for some very interesting reading.

Cons:  Despite her heroics, Jovita’s early life sounds pretty terrible.

Dear Yesteryear by Kimberly Annece Henderson, hand lettering by Ciara LeRoy

Published by Dial Books

Summary:  “Dearest yesteryear, tell me your life’s story.”  Kimberly Annece Henderson, a historical researcher who specializes in genealogy and Black American lineages, directly addresses the people in the black-and-white photographs shown in the book.  Her poetic text asks them about their lives:  did they finish school?  Find love?  Achieve success?  She asks for their help and guidance in persevering, concluding, “I’ll walk within your shadow, until memory calls me home.  With love, Today.”  Includes an author’s note with additional information about her family and the work that she does, as well as thumbnails of each photo with a citation.  40 pages; grades 1-5.

Pros:  With the look of an old photo album, this unique book contains photos and text that are sure to be thought-provoking and discussion-inducing. The pictures would make great writing prompts and could lead readers to explore their own genealogies.

Cons:  The cover may not catch the eye of many kids. 

The Indestructible Tom Crean: Heroic Explorer of the Antarctic by Jennifer Thermes

Published by Viking Books for Young Readers

Summary:  Tom Crean grew up on the coast of Ireland and went to sea like most of the other young men around him.  But his fate took an unusual turn when he volunteered to be a last-minute replacement on board Robert Scott’s ship Discovery sailing for Antarctica.  This was the first of three trips Tom took to Antarctica: he was also part of Captain Scott’s attempt to be the first to reach the South Pole and was on board the ill-fated Endurance with Ernest Shackleton.  In fact, Tom was one of three men responsible for the rescue for the rest of the Endurance crew.  Shackleton tried to convince Tom to go on one more Antarctic exploration, but by then Tom had settled down in Ireland, opening the South Pole Pub (still operating today) with his wife, and raising three children.  Includes an afterword with additional information, a timeline, and a list of sources.  56 pages; grades 2-5.

Pros:  I love Jennifer Thermes’ illustrations, especially her maps, and am delighted to see on Amazon that she has a book about the history of America coming out this summer.  The illustrations are delightful, and the story is riveting, with plenty of back matter to make it a pretty complete biography.

Cons: Made Antarctica seem unappealing as a travel destination.

A Take-Charge Girl Blazes a Trail to Congress: The Story of Jeannette Rankin by Gretchen Woelfle, illustrated by Rebecca Gibbon

Published by Calkins Creek

Summary:  Jeannette Rankin was a take-charge girl from the start, helping out on her Montana ranch wherever she could.  Traditional female roles didn’t appeal to her, but social justice did, and she moved from working at a settlement house to campaigning for women’s suffrage.  After a victory for the cause in Montana, Jeannette decided to expand her influence by running for Congress.  On November 7, 1916, Jeannette won the election, becoming the first U.S. Congresswoman.  Five months later, she took her seat in the House of Representatives as a representative from Montana, declaring, “I may be the first woman member of Congress, but I won’t be the last.”  40 pages; grades 1-5.  Includes additional information about Jeannette Rankin, a timeline of her life, and additional resources.

Pros:  I’ve been working on a picture book biography of Jeannette Rankin off and on for the last few years, and this book is far better than anything I’ve been able to come up with.  The writing and illustrations are lively and capture Jeannette’s can-do spirit.

Cons:  To me, one of the most interesting things about Jeannette is that she voted against both World War I and World War II (the only member of Congress to do so for WWII), which was political suicide but supported her pacifist beliefs.  This part of her career is relegated to the back matter.