Luminous: Living Things That Light Up the Night by Julia Kuo

Published by Greystone Kids

Summary:  A mother and child travel through the night, walking, boating, and swimming to observe bioluminescence in many different forms.  The pages are all in black, making the colors glow brightly.  Each page has a single phrase or sentence in a larger font, then a few sentences in smaller print that give additional information.  A sense of wonder is conveyed in the last few pages, sharing the information that many life forms have yet to be discovered, and encouraging readers to look closely at the world around them.  44 pages; ages 4-10.

Pros:  A beautiful introduction to bioluminescence that will encourage kids to look for other wonders in the world as well.  The illustrations are striking and there is plenty of interesting information.

Cons:  No back matter.

Yuck, You Suck! Poems About Animals That Sip, Slurp Suck by Jane Yolen and Heidi E. Y. Stemple, illustrated by Eugenia Nobati

Published by Millbrook Press

Summary:  Thirteen animals are profiled in this poetry collection, from the tiny mosquito to the elephant.  Some animals, like the vampire bat, have a reputation for sucking but actually lap up blood from the animals they bite (is that better?).  The first poem introduces the concept of sucking, and the final one connects the animals to humans, who start their lives sucking milk.  Includes additional information about animals that suck, a list of additional resources, anatomical terms for body parts that suck, a glossary, and a bit more information on each animal.  32 pages; grades 2-5.

Pros:  From the team that brought you Eek, You Reek! (about stinky animals) comes a book that is sure to catch the eye of many elementary students.  Most of the poems have catchy rhymes (although there’s a haiku thrown in, for the honeybee), and kids will get a kick out of the bug-eyed creatures in the illustrations.

Cons:  There’s a certain bloody gross-out factor inherent in the subject matter. You may not want to read this book before sitting down to Thanksgiving dinner and perhaps not too soon after either.

A Journey Under the Sea by Craig Foster and Ross Frylinck

Published by Clarion Books

Summary:  The narrator takes readers on a dive into the ocean at the tip of South Africa.  Underwater, they observe all kinds of animals including a seal, an octopus, a cuttlefish, and a couple of different sharks.  On the way back, they see tiny snail eggs and a whale, which likes to snack on the sea snails, an example of how ocean animals are all connected.  Includes a note from the authors and additional information about each photo in the book.  56 pages; grades K-5.

Pros:  A gorgeous picture book from the creators of The Octopus Teacher, now streaming on Netflix. Their joy and enthusiasm for diving and exploring the ocean really shines through in both the photos and the text.  From the eye-catching cover to the farewell from the dolphins, kids will be captivated by this journey.

Cons:  There’s just a little bit of information about each animal, so some additional resources would have been nice.

Digestion: The Musical by Adam Rex, illustrated by Laura Park

Published by Chronicle Books

Summary:  Digestion: The Musical unfolds in three acts, featuring Your Body, L’il Candy, Gum, and the Baby Carrot Singers.  Starting from the moment the brain gets the signal to open the mouth and let in L’il Candy, the story continues down the esophagus and into the stomach, where Candy meets up with Gum (has he really been stuck there for years? “Nah, that’s a myth.”).  She’s consistently dismissed as junk food by the heart, lungs, gallbladder, and even the seemingly useless appendix.  But Candy persists and is eventually shown to have a nutritional core that can be used by the body.  The final number [two], “Let’s Get This Potty Started”, will leave audiences with a smile on their faces.  Includes a glossary and a literal appendix, which it turns out, is actually useful for storing good bacteria. 76 pages; grades 2-6.

Pros:  I laughed, I cried, I gasped aloud at this fascinating and hilarious mix of fiction and nonfiction that’s presented in both horizontal and vertical spreads.  You’ll probably want to supplement this with other material, but the basic facts are here and likely to stick in kids’ heads due to the high entertainment factor of the presentation.

Cons:  It’s tough to let yourself get too attached to a protagonist that you know is about to be pulverized by the digestive system.

A Leopard Diary: My Journey Into the Hidden World of a Mother and Her Cubs by Suzi Eszterhas

Published by Owlkids

Summary:  When Suzi Eszterhas hears about a pregnant female leopard living in Botswana, she decides to travel there to photograph her and her cubs.  The leopard, named Camp Female, is more relaxed around humans than most leopards, making opportunities for photographing more likely.  This book is written like a diary, from Suzi’s arrival on April 19 when the cubs are just a few weeks old, until February two years later, when those two are grown and living on their own and Camp Female has a new baby.  Suzi makes several trips during that time, capturing the leopards on film as the play, hunt, and rest.  She also records other animals she sees on her trips, like elephants, giraffes, and baboons.  The narrative ends when the newest cub is still a baby, but Suzi promises she’ll be back to continue her work.  Includes an interview with Kambango, her guide and friend, and a glossary.  40 pages; grades 3-5.

Pros:  I’m always thrilled to see a new book by Suzi Eszterhas, because they’re so popular with kids.  And why not?  High quality photos of adorable animals and stories written engagingly for elementary students make a winning combination that is continued in her most recent work.

Cons:  Camp Female seemed like a pretty dreary name for a leopard, with not much improvement when she was renamed “Mom”. 

Concrete: From the Ground Up by Larissa Theule, illustrated by Steve Light

Published by Candlewick

Summary:  We may not think much about concrete (I know I don’t), but it’s an amazing material that has allowed engineers to design some pretty spectacular structures beginning with the Roman Colosseum and Pantheon.  The technology was lost for centuries after the fall of the Roman Empire, but an engineer named John Smeaton rediscovered it to construct a lighthouse in 1757.  Since then, engineers have learned how to reinforce concrete with steel that has allowed them to build bridges, dams, and skyscrapers.  The final page asks the question of what may come next for concrete as the needs of humans and the planet change in the future.  48 pages; grades 2-5.

Pros:  Answers the question “How could concrete possibly be interesting?” with engaging stories of different structures around the world and incredibly detailed drawings that feature various characters making funny comments about their circumstances and inventions.  Fans of David Macaulay books will enjoy poring over the details.  Amazon has this listed as part of a series called Material Marvels, so I am hoping there will be more books to come.

Cons:  Many readers may see the cover and think, “How could concrete possibly be interesting?”

Caves by Nell Cross Beckerman, illustrated by Kalen Chock

Published by Orchard Books

Summary:  Addressing the reader in the second person (“You want to go in…do you dare?”), the book introduces different features of caves, then shows unusual examples of each one in seven caves around the world.  There’s the Cueva de Los Cristales in Mexico, filled with 39-foot crystals that had to be pumped dry for people to explore. And the Bracken Cave in Texas, summer home to twenty million bats.  The realistic illustrations convey the magnitude of the caves, often showing how small the human explorers are in comparison.  Includes notes from the author and illustrator, lists of cave rules and spelunking equipment, and more fun facts about three of the caves.  40 pages; grades 1-4.

Pros:  The poetic text and gorgeous illustrations combine to make a nonfiction book that invites readers on an adventure, in the spirit of Candace Fleming’s Giant Squid or Jason Chin’s Grand Canyon.  I’d love to see this get some Siebert Award recognition.

Cons:  I wish that there were more fun facts about all of the caves mentioned in the book, not just three.

The Animal Toolkit: How Animals Use Tools by Steve Jenkins and Robin Page

Published by Clarion Books

Summary:  The introduction defines a tool as “an object that an animal manipulates and uses to affect its environment, another animal, or itself.”  Many of us probably know that certain kinds of apes and monkeys use tools, but what about the corolla spider that uses stones to build its web, or the bottlenose dolphin that catches fish in a shell?  Or, creepily, the black kite that will carry a burning stick from a wildfire to start a fire in another area to flush out prey (I wish I could unsee the cute quorra fleeing the flames).  Each page has a cut paper illustration with a brief paragraph of information; additional information on each animal is provided at the end, along with a bibliography.  32 pages; grades K-5.

Pros:  By now you know of my deep and abiding love for all things Steve Jenkins (and Robin Page for that matter), and here you have another fascinating book to wow elementary kids.

Cons:  Still experiencing grief and denial over the fact that Steve Jenkins passed away earlier this year.

How Was That Built? The Stories Behind Awesome Structures by Roma Agrawal, illustrated by Katie Hickey

Published by Bloomsbury Children’s Books

Summary:  Written by a structural engineer, this book is divided into fifteen sections that delve into how to build in different circumstances, with examples of each.  For instance, the Brooklyn Bridge is featured in “How to Build Long”, London’s sewers in “How to Build Clean”, and the Pantheon in “How to Build a Dome”.  Each section opens with some general information, then dives into the history of the structure with plenty of illustrations to help with the explanations.  There are sections about building on ice in Antarctica and building undersea and in space.  The final two pages include some new technologies that will help engineers create structures of the future.  Includes a glossary and an engineers’ gallery featuring ten engineers.  80 pages; grades 4-8.

Pros:  This is a pretty amazing collection of information with beautiful, detailed illustrations that will fascinate readers with an inclination toward science and engineering.  

Cons: I couldn’t figure out what the criteria were for which engineers made it into the gallery at the end.

Passionate About Penguins by Owen Davey

Published by Flying Eye Books

Summary:  Each two-page spread covers an aspect of penguins: different species, how they eat, their feathers, self-defense, temperature control, and more.  The format reminded me of the Eyewitness books of old, with several illustrations and paragraphs of text on each spread.  The page “To Scale” shows a human surrounded by every species of penguin, drawn to size so kids can see how they compare to each other and to a person.  Includes information on penguin conservation and what kids can do to help, as well as index.  There are eight other books in this series. The series title, About Animals, is nowhere near as creative as the book titles which include Obsessive About Octopuses and Bonkers About Beetles.  40 pages; grades 2-5.

Pros:  There’s a ton of information packed into this book in a very appealing presentation, with beautiful illustrations, clever headings (Born This Way; Ice, Ice Baby), and easily digestible bits of information.

Cons:  Some additional resources would have been useful.