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.

Black Beach: A Community, an Oil Spill, and the Origin of Earth Day by Shaunna and John Stith, illustrated by Maribel Lechuga

Published by little bee books

Summary:  Sam is in class drawing a picture of her favorite Santa Barbara beach when the principal walks in and whispers something to her teacher.  She finds out the news at home when her parents tell her about the oil spill that’s polluting her beloved beach.  As the oil starts to wash ashore, Sam feels sad, then angry, as she watches her parents and other volunteers try to clean up the damage.  She and her friends fill bottles with the oil and mail them to politicians.  News coverage increases, and several months later, U.S Senator and environmental activist Gaylord Nelson visits the beach, inspiring him to organize the first Earth Day.  On April 22, 1970, people around the world celebrated, protested, and taught about the environment, beginning a movement that continues today.  Includes an authors’ note, a bibliography, a timeline, additional information about Earth Day, and a list of ten ways to become an environmental activist.  40 pages; ages 4-8.

Pros:  An excellent read-aloud for Earth Day.  The perspective of the fictional Sam brings this true story to life for kids, and the additional information gives them concrete actions to take for the environment.

Cons:  Showing the damage wrought by the oil company, then urging kids to take shorter showers and turn off the lights feels like misplaced responsibility.

We Go Way Back: A Book About Life on Earth and How It All Began by Idan Ben-Barak, illustrated by Philip Bunting

Published by Roaring Brook Press

Summary:  Idan Ben-Barak and Philip Bunting have created a picture book about life on Earth and how it started.  Going back to a time when “there was a lot going on” on Earth (erupting volcanoes, raining meteors, lightning strikes), they explain how elements in Earth’s seas joined together to form molecules.  The molecules turned into bubbles until one day, a “special bubble” formed that could make copies of itself, each one just a little bit different.  From this process, all sorts of life forms began to evolve.  The final page is a three-part vertical gatefold that opens up to show the many branches on the tree of life.  40 pages; grades 1-4.

Pros:  This deceptively simple book takes on some enormously complex scientific concepts and manages to clearly explain them with the help of some pretty adorable illustrations.

Cons:  I would like to sit down and have a serious conversation with the editor who decided there was no need for back matter in this book.

The Gentle Genius of Trees by Philip Bunting

Published by Crown Books for Young Readers

Summary:  This friendly introduction to trees starts out with the ways humans benefit from them (wood, paper, food, shade), then moves on to the many amazing things trees can do.  Their roots sink deep into the earth, allowing trees to connect with and even communicate with each other.  The genius of trees extends to their growth, allowing them to optimize the location of branches and leaves for making food through photosynthesis.  The book ends with some lessons humans can learn from trees: be flexible, branch out (but look for the things that give you the most energy), look out for those around you, and grow slow to grow strong.  32 pages; grades 2-5.

Pros:  There’s a surprising amount of information about trees here, all presented with clear explanations, gentle humor, and cute yet informative illustrations. 

Cons:  No back matter.

Nell Plants a Tree by Anne Wynter, illustrated by Daniel Miyares

Published by Balzer + Bray

Summary:  Before children climbed the giant pecan tree, Nell planted a seed.  Before they ran races to the base of the tree, Nell watered a sprout and made sure it had sun.  Before grandchildren helped their grandmother Nell bake goodies with pecans from the tree, Nell dug a hole and planted her sapling.  Over the years, that sapling became a tree, putting down roots and spreading its branches as Nell grew up, too, and created a family in the house next to the tree.  At sunset, that family eats at a long table beneath the spreading branches of the giant pecan tree.  Includes notes from the author and illustrator.  40 pages; ages 4-8.

Pros:  A celebration of trees and families, and the long-term commitment needed to see both of them flourish, with beautiful illustrations that help tell the story.  I love the final spread with its gorgeous sunset colors and the tree sheltering the family.

Cons:  It looked like Nell had at least three kids, but only one made it back for the dinner under the tree.

Yoshi, Sea Turtle Genius: A True Story About an Amazing Swimmer by Lynne Cox, illustrated by Richard Jones

Published by Anne Schwartz Books

Summary:  Yoshi the sea turtle gets another picture book about her record-breaking swim from South Africa to Australia.  After getting entangled in a fishing net, she was rescued and sent to Two Oceans Aquarium in Cape Town, South Africa, where she lived for the next twenty years.  She spent 18 months training to swim in the ocean before being released with a tracker attached to her shell.  The tracker showed when she left Africa and began heading to her native Australia.  Over the next twenty-six months, Yoshi swam 22,998 miles, the longest recorded swim of any animal.  She found her way back to where she had started her life, laying eggs on the very same beach.  Includes a note from the author, who is also a long-distance swimmer, with additional information about Yoshi and sea turtles.  40 pages; grades K-4.

Pros:  Like Yoshi and the Ocean, this picture book will appeal to animal lovers, telling Yoshi’s story with a sense of awe that is reflected in the gorgeous underwater illustrations.

Cons:  I wouldn’t have objected to a larger font.

5 favorite nonfiction books

Lots of great science books this year! I’d love to see any of these win a Robert F. Sibert award or honor for nonfiction.

Caves by Nell Cross Beckerman, illustrated by Kalen Chock

Published by Orchard Books

The author’s love of caves is evident from the poetic text and the illustrations may inspire readers to try spelunking.

The Universe in You: A Microscopic Journey by Jason Chin

Published by Neal Porter Books

In this follow-up to Your Place in the Universe, Jason Chin goes microscopic to explore the tiniest particles that make up everything in the universe and how they combine to make each one of us unique.

Surviving the Wild series by Remy Lai

Published by Henry Holt and Co.

Each book in this series tells a true story of survival from an animal’s perspective. A perfect trifecta of cute and funny animals, graphic novel format, and important environmental information.

A Seed Grows by Antoinette Portis

Published by Neal Porter Books

A perfect early science resource that I’m already excited to share with preschoolers when they learn about seeds and plants next spring.

If the World Were 100 Animals by Miranda Smith, illustrated by Aaron Cushley

Published by Crown Books for Young Readers

This companion to If the World Were 100 People makes a great interactive read-aloud to share facts about animals in a way that has a big wow factor and is easy to understand.

The Tide Pool Waits by Candace Fleming, illustrated by Amy Hevron

Published by Neal Porter Books

Summary:  The cycle of a tide pool is explored, starting with a wave crashing onto the shore, the water pooling in some rocks.  As the sun warms the water, all kinds of creatures gather in the pool–barnacles, mussels, an octopus–and they all wait.  Finally, the wait is over, as another wave crashes, connecting the tide pool to the rest of the ocean.  The animals swim around and eat, and slowly, the cycle begins all over again.  Includes thumbnail illustrations of the various animals mentioned with additional information, websites, and a diagram of the different parts of the tide zone.  40 pages; ages 4-8.

Pros:  I loved the illustrations in this introduction to tide pools, which is a great resource for preschool and primary grade science lessons.  The colors are beautiful, and kids will enjoy learning about the different critters.

Cons:  If you’re seeking an action-packed thriller, you may have to look elsewhere.

The Bird Book by Steve Jenkins and Robin Page

Published by Clarion Books

Summary:  The husband-and-wife team of Jenkins and Page have created a picture book jam-packed with information about birds.  From their anatomy and physiology to their evolution from dinosaurs to record-holders in the avian world, readers will learn fascinating facts about birds, accompanied by Steve Jenkins’s trademark cut-paper illustrations.  Includes a four-page table listing every bird mentioned in the book, with its size, diet, range, and the page where it can be found; also, a list of books and websites with more information.  48 pages; grades 1-5.

Pros:  Another beautiful offering by Robin Page and the late Steve Jenkins, with a ton of information offered in an appealing format with stunning illustrations.

Cons:  Another childhood bubble was burst when I learned that the oldest bird on record is a pink cockatoo that lived to the age of 83, not Dr. Dolittle’s 199-year-old parrot Polynesia.

Elephants Remember: A True Story by Jennifer O’Connell

Published by Tilbury House Publishers

Summary:  When Lawrence Anthony gets a call saying that a herd of elephants will be shot if he can’t rescue them, he quickly sets up his wildlife reserve to accommodate them.  The animals have been traumatized after having members of their herd killed by poachers, including the matriarch and her baby.  Lawrence names the new matriarch Nana, and after the elephants trample the reserve’s electric fence and escape the first night, he sets out to earn Nana’s trust.  Slowly, she begins to let down her guard and allow Lawrence to come closer to her.  Over the years, Lawrence distances himself from the growing herd to help them remain wild, but he always keeps a connection with Nana.  When Lawrence dies of a heart attack, Nana leads the herd to his house and does so again on the same day for the next two years.  Includes an author’s note and three pages of additional information about elephants and Lawrence Anthony.  48 pages; grades 1-5.

Pros:  An incredibly moving story of a man dedicated to helping African wildlife and the amazing connection he made with elephants.  

Cons:  Some photos would have been a nice addition.