Review of A Journey Under the Sea, by Craig Foster and Ross Frylinck

A Journey Under the Sea

by Craig Foster and Ross Frylinck

Clarion Books, 2022. 52 pages.
Review written March 9, 2023, from a library book
Starred Review

The stars of this picture book are the large-format undersea photographs. Every spread is filled with color and light and undersea life.

All the pictures are taken off the coast of South Africa, and the story is a loose one of what you might find if you go for a dive. We see some animals good at camouflage, like an octopus and cuttlefish, as well as some predators like a cow shark and some pyjama sharks.

This isn’t really a book full of facts for doing reports (though there are plenty of facts). It’s a book to leaf through and wonder at. The enormous pictures will make you feel like you know what it’s like to be at the bottom of the sea in the kelp forest.

harpercollinschildrens.com

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Review of How to Explain Coding to a Grown-Up, by Ruth Spiro, illustrated by Teresa Martinez

How to Explain Coding to a Grown-Up

by Ruth Spiro
illustrated by Teresa Martinez

Charlesbridge, 2023. 32 pages.
Review written November 17, 2023, from a library book.
Starred Review

I love this title! It of course gives a clear and simple explanation of coding — because that’s what grown-ups need.

The pictures show an elementary school-aged kid and her grown-up. And the book explains that sometimes your grown-up may need your help understanding things. I love the Pro Tips sprinkled throughout. Here are some examples:

Pro Tip: When dealing with grown-ups, don’t jump into the complicated stuff too fast. Start with something they already know.

At that point, you’re explaining that many common objects in your home have computers inside them.

Pro Tip: Now may be a good time to check in with your grown-up. Ask if they have any questions before you move on.

That tip comes after showing what’s inside a computer, talking about what code is, and telling that programmers write the code.

Then to explain algorithms, you’re encouraged to take your grown-up for a walk in the park with healthy snacks, using an algorithm to decide whether to swing on the swings (depending on if one is available). With that example, the grown-up learns about conditionals and loops.

Then the book adds some more details such as debugging, and then it’s time to ask your grown-up questions.

Pro Tip: If your grown-up can explain it, that shows they understand it!

It all adds up to a basic explanation of coding that’s a lot of fun to read.

ruthspiro.com
charlesbridge.com

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Review of Hidden Systems, by Dan Nott

Hidden Systems

Water, Electricity, the Internet, and the Secrets Behind the Systems We Use Every Day

by Dan Nott

RH Graphic, 2023. 264 pages.
Review written September 29, 2023, from a book sent by the publisher.
Starred Review
2023 National Book Award Longlist

Hidden Systems is graphic novel format nonfiction about some essentially important – but hidden things. In three sections, the author explains, with diagrams and drawings, how the Internet works, how electricity works, and how our water systems work.

It’s interesting that the topics are approached in the opposite order from the subtitle, which is also the opposite order from how they were developed in the real world. But taking a present to the past approach does get the information across.

At the front of the book, the author talks about what hidden systems are and how he learned about them by trying to draw them. Because so much is invisible, the metaphors we use to describe them are important. Here’s a bit from that introduction, which has a small picture accompanying each line.

A hidden system is something we don’t notice
until it breaks.

But when these systems are doing what they’re supposed to,
they become so commonplace
that we hardly see them.

Hidden systems are in the news all the time.
Usually when something dramatic happens.
(especially if something explodes)
But by overlooking hidden systems the rest of the time,
we take for granted the benefits they provide for some of us,
and disregard the harm they cause others.
These systems structure our society,
and even when they’re working,
are a source of inequality and environmental harm.

Something I appreciated about this look at the Internet, Electricity, and Water Systems is that he showed the big picture, too – how these things are physically hooked up and connected around the world.

There was a lot I didn’t know about each system: The importance of data centers for the internet, almost all the physical aspects of the electricity grid, and our frequent use of dams to run the water system.

Okay, this summary doesn’t do the book justice. Let me urge you to read it – and look at it – for yourself. (So much is communicated by the drawings!) The story of how humans have built these systems helps us think about what ways we could modify them to better work with our earth.

As he finishes up (accompanied by pictures):

We often just see the surface of our surroundings,
but by understanding these systems more deeply,
we can form our own questions about their past and future.
The answers to these questions can help us not only fix these systems
but also reimagine them –
creating a world that’s more in balance with the Earth
and that provides equitably for all people.

dannott.com
RHKidsGraphic.com

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Review of The Forest in the Sea, by Anita Sanchez

The Forest in the Sea

Seaweed Solutions to Planetary Problems

by Anita Sanchez

Holiday House, 2023. 92 pages.
Review written April 11, 2023, from a library book.

This is another example of a children’s book that taught me all kinds of science I didn’t know. In this case, it’s the science of seaweed.

The book begins with a story of cows on Prince Edward Island whose lives – and milk – got better when they had seaweed added to their food. In a later chapter, I learned that adding certain kinds of seaweed to cattle feed can keep them from producing methane — and methane from cows is a major force behind climate change.

I learned that there are many different kinds of seaweed, and that they aren’t actually part of the plant or animal kingdoms, but a type of algae. They are fundamental to oceanic ecosystems, and I learned about the Sargasso Sea, which is all about dense mats of floating seaweed called sargassum, sort of a golden floating inverted rain forest, full of a rich variety of marine life.

But this book especially focused on many areas of research using seaweed to solve human problems. This paragraph from the back of the book sums many of them up:

Imagine what the future might hold. Biodegradable plastic made from seaweed. Cars fueled with seaweed. You might drink clean, safe water filtered by seaweed. Maybe you’ll live in a house roofed with insulation of compressed seaweed, or wear clothing made of seaweed fabric. Someday this book might be printed on paper made from seaweed. There’s no end to the possibilities.

It all adds up to a book packed with interesting facts and generously illustrated with photographs.

HolidayHouse.com/BooksforaBetterEarth

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Review of Caves, by Nell Cross Beckerman, illustrated by Kalen Chock

Caves

by Nell Cross Beckerman
illustrated by Kalen Chock

Orchard Books, 2022. 40 pages.
Review written March 9, 2023, from a library book.
Starred Review

This nonfiction picture book is a simple introduction to caves for kids.

It talks about different kinds of caves and what it’s like to explore them. (Don’t go alone!) And it looks at some notable caves around the world. The main text is simple, poetic, and evocative. Then there’s more detail in smaller print about particular caves that are mentioned.

What makes this book extra striking are the stunning paintings in this extra-large picture book. Paintings like the underwater cave in Florida or the caves lit by glowworms in New Zealand pull you in and make you feel like you’re experiencing the caves. I was amazed that this is the illustrator’s picture book debut. I hope we see much more of his work!

This book has lots of facts about caves, but is sure to leave kids extra curious about them. The notes at the end give ideas for getting involved in local spelunking groups.

NellCrossBeckerman.com
scholastic.com

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Review of One Tiny Treefrog, by Tony Piedra & Mackenzie Joy

One Tiny Treefrog

A Countdown to Survival

by Tony Piedra and Mackenzie Joy

Candlewick Press, 2023. 36 pages.
Review written August 16, 2023, from a library book
Starred Review

First, a word of warning. This gorgeous picture book looks like an innocent version of the “and then there were none” counting down book where creatures innocently fall away. This one is a book about predators. So read it, by all means — your kids will learn loads about the Costa Rican rain forest — but first make sure your kid won’t get too attached to the treefrog tadpoles. It’s for a slightly older audience that’s ready to learn about the food chain.

The four pages of notes at the back begin like this:

What does it take to become one tiny red-eyed treefrog? (Agalychnis callidryas)

It takes a whole lot of eggs!
Red-eyed treefrogs do not care for their young, so laying many eggs is a survival strategy. The more eggs a mother frog lays, the greater the chances that one will beat the odds and grow into a treefrog.

Going back to the start of the book, we’ve got a beautiful picture with an adult red-eyed treefrog looking on, focused in on eggs on a leaf.

Ten tiny tadpoles grow in their eggs.

And you guessed it, on each page, a predator gets another one of these offspring. Most (but, curiously, not all) of the predators are labeled with small print on the page where they first appear, but some wait until the back of the book. First we see a social wasp that eats an egg. Then the eggs wiggle off the leaf and fall into the water in a nice spread where the reader needs to turn the book to a vertical orientation.

In the water, where they fell with a plink plink plink, there are new predators. We see the tadpoles grow and change. When they start breathing out of the water, there are new predators, and a nice dramatic spread when a large bare-throated fire heron gets one of them. And oh my goodness, the young spectacled caiman is frightening and sinister! (Remember how I said not to show this to the very youngest children? I wouldn’t use it in preschool storytime, but one-on-one, safely in a grown-ups lap, children fascinated with animals may love this book.)

And at the end, with the last tadpole escaped and back on a tree leaf, we’ve got:

Zero tiny tadpoles.

One tiny treefrog.

I can’t stress enough how gorgeous the paintings in this book are. There’s drama, especially with the heron and the caiman (so be sure your child is ready for it), and lots of fascinating details about Cosa Rican wildlife all throughout the book.

A truly wonderful book for early scientists. But I did laugh about all the eating that happens in what looks like such a sweet book.

tonypiedra.com
mackenziejoy.art

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Review of How Do Meerkats Order Pizza? by Brooke Barker

How Do Meerkats Order Pizza?

Wild Facts about Animals and the Scientists Who Study Them

by Brooke Barker

Simon & Schuster Books for Young Readers, 2022. 200 pages.
Review written March 7, 2023, from a library book.
Starred Review

How Do Meerkats Order Pizza? is a look at how scientists study animals and learn answers to burning questions like that. Okay, meerkats don’t actually order pizza, but it turns out that they vote about group decisions. Dr. Marta Manser and her team have been studying meerkats for more than twenty years and determined that they cooperate in this way.

The book tells us about seventeen different scientists and the animals they study and lots of cool facts they’ve learned. We also learn about how they figure things out. For example, in studying crows, Dr. John Marzluff used masks to discover that crows remembered faces — and communicated what they knew to other crows. Another story is about Dr. Natalia de Souza Albuquerque studying dogs and used large pictures with happy and angry sounds to determine that dogs know the meanings of basic human facial expressions.

The entire book is full of cartoon illustrations with cartoon animals commenting on the different scientists and facts. Some are just silly, like a horse who gets lost on wrong pages or the Antarctic midge that is convinced it’s the best animal in the book.

This book ends up being a lot of fun and super interesting at the same time. You can’t fail to learn lots of fascinating things about animals from this book, and kids might also be inspired to become scientists themselves.

simonandschuster.com/kids

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Review of Butt or Face? by Kari Lavelle

Butt or Face?

Can you tell which end you’re looking at?

by Kari Lavelle

Sourcebooks Explore, 2023. 36 pages.
Review written July 27, 2023, from a library book.
Starred Review

I’ve now been Youth Materials Selector for my library system of 22 branches for a full year — and have gotten more requests that we purchase this book than any other nonfiction book.

What is it? Extreme close-up pictures of fourteen unusual animals. And those close-ups are either taken from their front end or their rear end. Turning the page reveals which one.

Like I said, most of these animals are a little unusual. Several insects and arachnids, and more than a few animals from Australia. I definitely was fooled more than once when I read through it.

After you turn the page, you get a more about the animal and where it lives, including little boxes with fun facts headlined either “Face the Facts” or “Beyond the Backside.” A chart at the back tells “Where they rest their BUTTS” and “What goes in their FACES.”

It’s kind of a shame this book came out in the middle of the summer, because it’s tailor-made for booktalking in the schools. I’m sure many librarians will choose to booktalk it next year, but I’ll be surprised if a lot of kids won’t have already seen it. I ordered 22 copies, and they all went to fill holds, with 5 people still having to wait their turn. (This is unusual for a children’s nonfiction picture book.)

This is a funny and playful way to learn about some of the amazing variety in the animal kingdom. Can you tell which end you’re looking at?

karilavelle.com

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Review of The Code Breaker, by Walter Isaacson with Sarah Durand

The Code Breaker

Jennifer Doudna and the Race to Understand Our Genetic Code

by Walter Isaacson
with Sarah Durand

Simon & Schuster Books for Young Readers, 2022. Adapted from The Code Breaker, by Walter Isaacson, 2021. 320 pages.
Review written January 8, 2023, from a library book
Starred Review

This is the young readers’ adaptation of the book for adults by Walter Isaacson. Honestly, I had trouble with the density of this book, so I’m glad I read the young adult version! This was much slower reading than a typical young adult novel, and was packed with details and facts.

But despite the density, this is fascinating reading. The introduction begins with a story of a woman cured of sickle-cell anemia with gene therapy. Then they talk about some other possibilities of these techniques that came from breaking the human genetic code — learning how DNA and RNA work.

The book is the story of the career of Jennifer Doudna, who ended up being a pioneer in the field of gene-editing research and technology. But her story goes much deeper than simply one woman’s accomplishments. This is a section from the introduction:

Doudna’s life offers an up-close look at how science works. Her story helps answer: What actually happens in a lab? To what extent do discoveries depend on individual genius, and how has teamwork become more critical? And has the competition for individual prizes, money, and fame stopped people from working together for the common good?

Most of all, Doudna’s story conveys the importance of basic science, meaning quests that are curiosity-driven rather than geared toward immediate, practical results. Curiosity-driven research plants the seeds — sometimes in unpredictable ways — for later discoveries. For example, a few scientists decided to research basic physics simply because it excited them, and their discoveries eventually led to the invention of the microchip. Similarly, the findings of a handful of researchers who took an interest in an astonishing method that bacteria use to fight off viruses helped generate a revolutionary gene-editing tool that humans now use in their own struggle against viruses.

Jennifer Doudna is the perfect example of that brand of curiosity. Hers is a tale filled with the biggest of questions, from the origins of the universe to the future of the human race. Yet it begins with a sixth-grade girl who loved searching for “sleeping grass” and other fascinating phenomena amid the lava rocks of Hawaii, and who came home from school one day to find on her bed a detective tale about the people who discovered what they believed to be “the secret of life.”

The story in this book is very immediate, with the entire last section talking about using CRISPR technology to detect and fight coronaviruses.

I think it’s especially apt to adapt this book for young adults, since this technology will be something they’re growing up with. The entire last half of the book raises questions about ethics and the morality of editing the genes of humans and possibly our descendants. As more and more becomes possible, it is good to bring to young people’s attention the need to think about ethical concerns.

The science in this book is fascinating, and might end up being something very much a part of young people’s lives. I can’t say that it gave me a new understanding of gene editing, because saying I understand it would be exaggerating. But it at least gave me a new appreciation.

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Review of American Murderer, by Gail Jarrow

American Murderer

The Parasite That Haunted the South

by Gail Jarrow

Calkins Creek, 2022. 159 pages.
Review written January 15, 2023, from a library book
Starred Review
2023 YALSA Excellence in Nonfiction Finalist
2022 Cybils Award Finalist, High School Nonfiction

I’m squeamish, so I didn’t expect to enjoy this book from the “Medical Fiascoes Series” as much as I did. But Gail Jarrow, a past winner of the YALSA Excellence in Nonfiction Award, makes the story of this medical mystery fascinating.

It’s all about a parasite. Scientists in Europe discovered that hookworms were making people sick in the late 1800s. But in 1902, a scientist named Charles Wardell Stiles discovered a distinct type of hookworm in America. He named it Necator americanus, which means “American murderer.”

But after discovering the new parasite came the dawning realization that more than 40% of rural southern families were infected with it, up to 2 or 3 million people.

Afflicted people complained of diarrhea and a bloated abdomen. Their skin was paler than normal. Children were physically underdeveloped. Adults didn’t have enough endurance to perform even minor work, and they were usually poor because they couldn’t earn a living. Some people had experienced these symptoms for years, and family members had died with the same ailments. None of them knew why they’d been plagued for generations. They just accepted it.

The rest of the community considered these people sluggish and lazy. Because pica was a common symptom, the infected were often mocked as “dirt-eaters.” No one understood that the symptoms were not a sign of weak character or low mental ability. They were evidence of a tiny worm — actually hundreds of worms — slowly sucking blood from a victim’s small intestine.

Living during the Covid-19 pandemic, it’s easy to understand why most of this book is about convincing people — and doctors — that hookworm was real and convincing them to get treatment. Scientists also worked to get them to change things about their everyday lives. The worm gets into people through skin — mostly when people walk with bare feet on infected ground soiled with infected human feces.

So besides getting people to get tested and treated, there was also a campaign for sanitary privies. But those were expensive, as were shoes for growing children.

But the whole story of fighting the bug is an amazing success story with millions of lives saved and improved. I especially liked the many photos of infected people before and after treatment. The last chapter covers ways parasites still endanger people today, yes, even in America.

Overall, this is an abundance of clear information about a major public health problem from a hundred years ago that I previously knew absolutely nothing about. Almost every spread has photos or side bars, and the story is riveting as Gail Jarrow tells it. An amazing achievement.

gailjarrow.com

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