Holiday Gift Guide 2013: Compelling Non-Fiction For the Animal Lover

December 16, 2013 § 1 Comment

Steve Jenkins' The Animal BookLast year around this time (equally last minute), I did a post about “books worth their weight” (great-looking reference books), as well as one about picture books by Steve Jenkins, a.k.a. Children’s Master of All Things Animal. This year, we can kill two birds with one stone when we buy Steve Jenkins’ new, overstuffed, and absolutely phenomenal The Animal Book: A Collection of the Fastest, Fiercest, Toughest, Cleverest, Shyest—and Most Surprising—Animals on Earth (Ages 6-12).

Over 300 fascinating animals are presented in sections like Family (chapters include “The Mating Dance” and “Bringing Up Baby”); Defenses (e.g. “Copycats” and “Bodily Fluids”); and The Story of Life (yes, Jenkins tackles evolution and, boy, does he succeed). I’m normally not a big fan of fact-centered non-fiction, preferring a more narrative approach that strengthens children’s attention spans and reading comprehension. But I make a BIG exception for Jenkins, whose presentation is as visually enticing (brilliant paper collages amidst an extraordinary use of white space) as it is factually addictive. I could look at this book for hours. I have looked at this book for hours (yes, I am hoarding it from my kids). I never tire of marveling at each visual masterpiece, from the reticulated python to the two-foot-long tongue of a giant anteater to the brilliantly colored eggs lined up from smallest to largest. Towards the end is a clearly presented timeline of life, spanning a mere 3.5 billion years. And then there are the just-plain-awesome charts, peppered throughout the book: one showing number and types of eyes (at the top with one eye is the copepod, at the bottom with 1000 eyes is the giant clam); another bar graph shows average gestation periods (an African elephant is pregnant for 640 days?!). Even the book’s appendixes are supreme, including an accessible eleven-page guide for children to make their own animal books! Are you sold yet? Even if you don’t buy one for your family, you might consider donating it to your children’s school library!

Steve Bloom's Polar AnimalsSpeaking of school libraries, one of my greatest thrills is picking out new books for my children’s school, which at only three years old is still building its library from the ground up. Each fall, we hold a fundraiser (at our local independent bookstore), where not only can parents purchase books off the school’s “wish list,” but a percentage of the day’s proceeds go back to the school in the form of store credit. This fall, one of my favorite finds for our school’s “wish list” was two books by wildlife photographer, Steve Bloom: Polar Animals: In Search of Polar Bears, Penguins, Whales and Seals (Ages 5-10) and Big Cats: In Search of Lions, Leopards, Cheetahs and Tigers (Ages 5-10).

Pairing National Geographic-esque photographs with animal data is not unique, of course, but what I love about these books (back to my preference for non-fiction that’s presented in a narrative format), is that these read like travel journals. Not unlike the way my son’s elementary class keeps a “work journal” about their activities in the classroom, Polar Animals shows how this technique is used by scientists, in this case tracking Bloom’s voyage from the North to the South Poles and revealing not only what he saw but how he felt. Details about the expeditions range from the team of humpback whales that he surprises (they’re too busy rounding up a school of fish) to the fur-covered toilet he fashions out of ice (“luckily, there’s no one to see me use it”). The captions beside each photograph are concise, engaging, and appropriate for developing readers, and they serve as the perfect introduction to a variety of animals.

JP loves bringing his camera with him to the zoo or on a nature walk, and Bloom is just as interested in inspiring kids to take these kinds of photos (he includes ideas in a “photo projects” page at the end), as he is in teaching children about the magnificent creatures they might encounter in the wild.

The Hive DetectivesFor the older and more serious Animal Hunter, the Scientists in the Field series has been a game-changer for engaging the middle-school crowd in natural science. What sets these books apart is the sheer passion with which they are written. One of the newer books in the series (published in 2010 but available to a larger audience in 2013), The Hive Detectives: Chronicle of a Honey Bee Catastrophe, by Loree Griffin Burns (Ages 9-14), interrogates bee keepers and bee scientists around the country in an effort to solve the mystery of the dwindling honey bee population.

I would have been a lot more interested in non-fiction as a kid if the books had been as compelling as this one, whose highly detailed but ever-engaging narrative is broken up with photographs of real scientists doing real work, excerpts from field journals, and microscopic slides. And, of course, it’s rooted in a true story, when 20 million bees first disappeared from one man’s hives in 2006.

En route to solving this mystery, we get lessons in honey production, hive organization, and bee dissection—all in an effort to test out various hypotheses for why bees are dying, including pests, viruses, and pesticides. As we hear from various specialists, we are privy to insider jokes (“We beekeepers like to say that whoever invented the hive tool [used to pry up the honey supers] should get a Nobel Prize…it’s that’s useful”); but we also get a holistic picture of honey bee communities as they are being affected by modern farming practices and environmental shifts. At the end of the book, true to many scientific questions, the bee mystery is not completely solved. It will be up to the next generation—our own budding naturalists—to ask more questions, to get their hands dirty in the field and in the lab, and to educate the world about this beautiful and important species.

Other 2013 Non-Fiction Favorites for the Animal Lover:
Flight of the Honey Bee, by Raymond Huber & Brian Lovelock (Ages 5-9)
Look Up! Bird-Watching in Your Own Backyard, by Annette LeBlanc Cate  (Ages 7-12)
Scaly Spotted Feathered Frilled: How Do We Know What Dinosaurs Really Looked Like? by Catherine Thimmesh (Ages 8-12)
The Dolphins of Shark Bay (Scientists in the Field series), by Pamela S. Turner (Ages 9-14)
The Tapir Scientist: Saving South America’s Largest Mammal (Scientists in the Field series), by Sy Montgomery & Nic Bishop (Ages 9-14)
Stronger Than Steel: Spider Silk DNA and the Quest for Better Bulletproof Vests, Sutures, and Parachute Rope (Scientists in the Field series), by Bridget Heos & Andy Commins (Ages 10-15)

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