Summary: Isley loves everything about the ocean near her home until one day when a dead whale washes up on the beach. When she learns that the whale starved to death because its stomach was filled with plastic, she becomes angry. Turning her anger into action, Isley begins a campaign in her community to stop using plastic bags, straws, and other products. At first people are enthusiastic, but eventually the convenience of plastic causes them to backslide. Isley begins collecting the plastic she finds on the beach and uses it to create a giant whale sculpture. The whale serves as a reminder to people in the community, who begin to make bigger changes like banning plastic grocery bags and installing filling stations for water bottles. Includes an author’s note and a list of ideas for reducing plastics, both locally and globally. 32 pages; ages 4-8.
Pros: An empowering story about a girl who finds a way to make a difference in her community, with information that may inspire kids to take action themselves.
Summary: On January 19, 2006, a spacecraft called New Horizons blasted off from Earth, traveling toward what was then the planet Pluto. It took ten years to reach that destination, during which time Pluto’s designation changed from planet to dwarf planet. Much of that decade was spent by New Horizons in a shutdown state, hurtling through space on autopilot at a million miles per (Earth) day. In late 2014, scientists “woke” New Horizons again, and in 2015, she began transmitting photos of Pluto that captivated Earthlings and greatly increased understanding of the dwarf planet and its moons. A few years later, on New Year’s Day of 2019, New Horizons reached another object called Arrokoth that had been discovered in the years after her launch. Photos of Arrokoth helped scientists understand more about the early years of the solar system. New Horizons isn’t done yet, as she continues to travel further out in space. Includes a timeline, glossary, and resources for additional research. 40 pages; grades 1-5.
Pros: This charming science book gives New Horizons a quirky personality and uses words like “ginormous”, but also makes the story of scientific discovery engaging and packs a lot of information about space exploration and the solar system into a 40-page picture book.
Cons: I was wishing for more information on how New Horizons transmits photos and information back to Earth, which seems like an impossible task over such a great distance.
Summary: Many of us have heard that Isaac Newton developed the theory of gravitation after watching an apple fall off of a tree. Newton is the star of that story, but what about the tree? Believe it or not, it still stands outside of Woolsthorpe Manor, Isaac’s home in Lincolnshire England, and has been visited by such scientific superstars as Albert Einstein and Stephen Hawking. A sliver of it traveled aboard the International Space Station and was released into space. A piece was used on a carriage handcrafted for Queen Elizabeth II. And offspring from its seeds have been planted around the world. It all started with one apple seed, and, the book concludes, you too contain the potential to change the world. Includes additional information about the gravity tree, Isaac Newton, Albert Einstein, and Stephen Hawking; a timeline of Newton’s life; and a bibliography. 40 pages; grades K-5.
Pros: 2021 does seem to be the year of the tree: counting trees, wise trees, historical trees, and now a tree that has inspired famous scientists. It’s a fun and fresh way to introduce kids to the works of Newton, Einstein, and Hawking, while using the metaphor of a seed to inspire them to think about their own potential. The back matter makes it a great book for older elementary kids.
Cons: Turns out the apple didn’t hit Newton on the head which takes away a bit of the drama from the story.
Summary: The sun is 4.6 billion years old, and the planets have decided to throw a birthday party. They consider the guest list (if they invite Pluto, will they have to include the other dwarf planets? Can a moon be counted as a plus-one if a planet has over 70 moons?) and what to give as a gift, finally settling on a testimonial from each one of them. When the big day arrives, each one has a touching message, and as a surprise, the mysterious voice of Planet X is heard, wishing the sun a happy birthday from a great distance. The sun is pretty reserved, but she declares the party “Stellar”, while looking both beaming and radiant. Includes a list of websites, with the note that scientists are constantly learning new facts about the solar system, so the web can provide the most up-to-date information. 40 pages; grades K-3.
Pros: A great combination of a fun story and lots of facts about the planets that would make a good companion to Adam Rex’s Pluto Gets the Call. I liked the acknowledgement that science changes so fast that books can go out of date quickly.
Summary: A young girl discovers a treefrog in the garden outside her new home. As the two travel through the seasons together, she makes discoveries about both the frog and herself. It’s summer when she moves in. Some kids come to play, but they’re too noisy for both her and the frog. When school starts, she meets a boy who feels like more of a kindred spirit, and she brings him to meet the frog. The two friends enjoy winter, and in the spring, their patience is rewarded when they see the treefrog once again. Each page offers some treefrog facts as well as a poem and illustration. Includes a page of questions and answers that gives more treefrog information. 40 pages; ages 4-8.
Pros: This delightful picture book functions as both a friendship story and a nonfiction book about treefrogs…and is narrated with Joyce Sidman’s simple but beautiful poetry.
Cons: No additional resources for further research.
Summary: A great white shark makes the case that he is the greatest. Or is he? Turns out, there are other sharks that are bigger, smaller, faster, and every other superlative he tries to be. By the end, he’s ready to change his name to the just-okay white shark or the not-so-great white shark. But then a little fish comes along and tells him there’s always going to be someone who is bigger, faster, smarter, or whatever than you are, and it’s best being happy to be you. That makes the great white happy, and he concludes by flashing his 300-tooth-grin…the greatest smile in the book. Includes thumbnails of all sharks mentioned with additional information and “More Books to Sink Your Teeth Into”. 48 pages; ages 4-9.
Pros: It’s a no-brainer that any book featuring sharks is going to be hugely popular, and the funny premise of this one, combined with Laurie Keller’s humorous illustrations will only add to that. Don’t be misled by all the jokester sharks, though…there is also plenty of information to fill your hammerhead shark-size-brain.
Cons: I thought the pages with a labelled diagram of the great white shark and the shark facts in the middle of the book kind of interrupted the story; they seemed more like back matter.
Summary: Growing up in Victorian England, Marianne North was never encouraged in her passions for art and botany. Self-taught in both, she stayed home and cared for her “irritable, demanding” father until his death when she was 40. When an elderly widow invited her to be a traveling companion to North America, Marianne jumped at the chance. This trip led her to Jamaica and the tropics she had long dreamed of seeing. She eventually circumnavigated the world several times, seeking out exotic plant species that she could paint. When her paintings crowded her London flat, she arranged to have a gallery built for them as part of the Royal Botanic Gardens. The Marianne North Gallery opened in 1882 with 627 paintings on display. She spent the last few years of her life at home in the English countryside, gardening, painting, and writing her memoirs before her death in 1890 at the age of 59. Includes additional information on her legacy and writings, as well as sources and a who’s who of people Marianne encountered throughout her life. 44 pages; grades 2-5.
Pros: This fascinating account of a woman who defied social expectations to lead an adventurous life makes for an inspiring read. Her single-minded passions, preference for being alone, and discomfort with social situations made me wonder if she was neurodivergent. The brilliant illustrations capture the spirit of North’s work, and make sure to check out the endpapers for reproductions of some of her paintings (identified in the back matter).
Summary: Levon Biss is a photographer whose work was mostly focused on celebrities and political leaders until the day his son Sebastian brought a beetle into the kitchen. When the two of them looked at it under a microscope, Levon was captivated by the beauty and complexity of the insect. Since then, he’s created amazing photos of all kinds of creatures, taking thousands of photos of each one, then piecing them together on his computer. This book includes 16 insects, with the photos as the main attraction, but also including some information about where each one lives, its size, a description, and a few facts. Includes a glossary. 40 pages; grades 2-5.
Pros: Anyone with the slightest interest in insects will be amazed by these photos and enriched by the information; anyone without that interest may be surprised to find out how beautiful and complex insects can be.
Cons: The author has a note at the end that begins, “Normally an author wouldn’t send his or her readers to the Internet. Not when there are shelves and shelves stacked with wonderful printed books….” It’s okay, here in the 21st century, it is actually okay to unapologetically send readers to the Internet.
Summary: Which two are the most closely related: hippo, dolphin, shark? That question is asked before the title page; the text goes back to the beginning of life on earth to find an answer. Each two-page spread shows animals for a geologic period, with several sentences of text telling what happened during this time. The final three (Paleozoic Era, Mesozoic Era, and Cenozoic Era) are covered on two pages and take us up to the present, where we learn how the hippo and dolphin are related. “Always changing. Always evolving. From out of the blue…and back again.” Includes a list of sources. 32 pages; grades 1-5.
Pros: An excellent introduction to geological history and evolution. Kids will enjoy poring over the illustrations of so many interesting creatures from so many different time periods. A first-rate science book.
Cons: It’s pretty challenging to cover the history of life on Earth in just 32 pages, and I can’t help thinking a little more back matter could have added more substance.
Summary: Lady Mary Wortley Montagu narrates this graphic history of vaccines from the early 18th century. After losing a brother to smallpox and becoming scarred by the disease herself, she was determined to protect her children from it. Living in the Ottoman Empire with her family, she heard of a procedure that involved introducing some matter from a pox sore into a cut on a person’s arm. She decided to have the procedure done on her son, and when she returned to England, on her daughter. Princess Caroline, future Queen of England, got wind of this, and began her own series of experiments which eventually popularized the procedure in Great Britain. From there, Lady Montagu continues the story of vaccines against various diseases: measles, mumps, polio, and, of course Covid. The narrative ends in November of 2020 as Covid vaccines are being developed and tested: “The world holds its breath…and hopes.” Includes a timeline; additional information on Mary Wortley Montagu; a lengthy bibliography; an author’s note; and an index. 144 pages; grades 3-7.
Pros: I looked for an interview of Don Brown to see if he began work on this book before or after Covid, but couldn’t find one. Either way, this book could hardly be more timely. It does a great job of explaining the science in an understandable way, coming down firmly on the side of vaccination while acknowledging those who fear it with a certain degree of sympathy. (Although I did love page 67 showing 19th-century British anti-vaxers saying things like, “I heard the doctors are wrong!” and “I don’t like the government telling me what to do!”). The back matter makes this an excellent research tool.
Cons: This book is billed as #3 of 3 in the Big Ideas That Changed the World series. I do hope that doesn’t mean it’s the last one.