Science and Nature

Ticktock, Wooden Clock


Ticktock Banneker’s Clock
By Shana Keller
Illustrated by David C. Gardner
(Sleeping Bear Press, 2016, Ann Arbor, $16.99)

An anomaly in his own time, Benjamin Banneker lived a remarkable life by any standards. Born to free African-American farmers in eighteenth-century Maryland, he learned to read when most black children were prevented from accessing education. Banneker not only became literate, but he went on to make contributions in math, astronomy, and engineering.

In Ticktock Banneker’s Clock, Shana Keller and illustrator David C. Gardner explore one of Banneker’s most impressive feats. Using a neighbor’s pocket watch as a model, young Benjamin built a wooden clock. The project took nearly two years – he drew diagrams; cut, cured, and carved wooden gears; and assembled the pieces a few times before he achieved a working timepiece. Keller’s narrative highlights Banneker’s focus and attention to detail, while providing readers with a glimpse of the rest of his life – his love for music and his hard work on the farm. Gardner’s illustrations paint a warm, idyllic portrait of Banneker and his world: young Benjamin toils on the farm, plays his flute under a tree, and draws diagrams at his desk. In almost every spread, his trusty hound accompanies him, and the seasons rise and fall around him as his project unfolds.

Ticktock Banneker’s Clock is an introduction to Benjamin Banneker and one of his many accomplishments. It is also a book about the rewards of patience and persistence and the joys of curiosity.

-Dorothy A. Dahm


Angel with a Plan


Florence Nightingale: The Courageous Life of the Legendary Nurse
By Catherine Reef
(Clarion Books, 2017, New York, $18.99)

Long considered a founding mother of modern nursing, Florence Nightingale is best remembered for nursing British soldiers during the Crimean War and founding a nursing school after it. However, the “Angel with a Lamp” was also a fierce public health advocate. She argued for – and often obtained – improved medical care and living conditions for Britain’s standing army and better sanitation in India. Eventually, she became a national symbol, but she overcame societal prejudice and familial opposition to start her career.

In Florence Nightingale, Catherine Reef describes the famous nurse’s life and work. She discusses Nightingale’s accomplishments in their historical context, providing relevant information about Victorian society, medicine, and the position of women. Of special interest to Reef is Nightingale’s relationship with her sister Parthenope. Staid and domestic, Parthenope was an ideal Victorian lady – and everything Florence was not. However, Parthenope initially resented Florence’s adventures and career because they separated her from her sister. In this way, Reef explores how nineteenth-century gender roles constrained not only ambitious women like Nightingale, but also those who preferred a quieter way of life as it made them overly dependent on others. And although Reef paints an admiring portrait of Nightingale, she also relates incidents in which the ministering angel was dismissive or manipulative. Far from detracting from Nightingale’s image, these anecdotes suggest she needed a certain single-mindedness to do her work.

Inspiring and thought-provoking, Florence Nightingale is both an intimate portrait of a secular saint and a look at the world that shaped her. Like the best biographies, it asks why someone accomplished so much – and provides a nuanced answer.

-Dorothy A. Dahm

Sickness and Stigma

TERRIBLE TYPHOID MARYTerrible Typhoid Mary: A True Story of Deadliest Cook in America
By Susan Campbell Bartoletti
(Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 2015, New York, $17.99)

Today, we remember Mary Mallon as “Typhoid Mary,” a healthy carrier of typhoid who transmitted the disease to others without showing symptoms herself. As a result, the New York City Board of Health compelled her to spend much of her life in quarantine. Mallon herself got lost under the moniker. An industrious Irish immigrant, Mallon had worked her way up the domestic servant ladder to become a sought-after cook for affluent households. She was also a fiercely private woman, a loyal friend, and a quick learner who later worked in health care.

In Terrible Typhoid Mary, Susan Campbell Bartoletti separates Mary Mallon from the urban legends that surrounded her during and after her lifetime. Although little information exists about Mallon’s early life, Bartoletti explores why so many Irish people emigrated to American in the late nineteenth and early twentieth century – and describes the hardships she faced as a domestic servant. Bartoletti intertwines Mallon’s story with other narratives, including that of George Soper, the sanitary engineer who first linked Mallon to a typhoid outbreak. In addition, she places Mallon’s plight in its historical context, educating readers about early twentieth-century advances in medicine and microbiology. Along the way, Bartoletti raises questions about the often dehumanizing treatment Mallon received from the Board of Health and the media. She asks readers to consider whether the Board violated Mallon’s civil rights and offers possible explanations for Mallon’s fervent distrust of the medical profession.

In Terrible Typhoid Mary, Bartoletti deftly mingles biography, science, and history. The result is an often gripping, always engaging look at a chapter in epidemiological history and a woman who was dismayed to find herself at the center of it.

-Dorothy A. Dahm

Under Sea Adventurers

9780547207131_hresProject Seahorse
By Pamela S. Turner
Photographs by Scott Tuason
(Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 2010, Paperback edition 2015, Boston, $9.99)

With equine heads, monkey-like tails, and kangaroo pouches, seahorses seem like characters from a fantasy novel. Add facts about their reproductive lives – pairs usually mate for life, males give birth to fully formed live young, and mates regularly perform courtship dances – and seahorses appear more fantastic than ever.

In Project Seahorse, Pamela S. Turner and photographer Scott Tuason bring readers into the coral reefs where these marvelous fish live. On this journey, readers also encounter the scientists who study and protect seahorses as well as the people who make a living from catching seahorses and other fish. Turner and Tuason capture the beauty of the coral reefs and their inhabitants, the adventure of field biology, and the great challenge of conservation: balancing human needs with those of other species and entire ecosystems. Above all, they allow readers to glimpse of one of nature’s most improbable and elusive creatures, encouraging curiosity and wonder.

-Dorothy A. Dahm


Grappling with Nature

john-muir-wrestles-a-waterfall-hiresJohn Muir Wrestles a Waterfall
By Julie Danneberg
Illustrated by Jamie Hogan
(Charlesbridge, 2015, Watertown, Massachusetts, $16.95)

John Muir, writer, explorer, conservation advocate, and founder of the Sierra Club, delighted in nature. Marveling at both the delicacy of a snowflake and the power of an earthquake, he spent years living in California’s Yosemite Valley. There, he lived in a sawmill he built himself; through the window, he could see the awe-inspiring Yosemite Falls. One night, in April 1871, Muir decided to get very close to the falls: an experience that simultaneously uplifted him and nearly cost him his life.

In John Muir Wrestles a Waterfall, Julie Danneberg and illustrator Jamie Hogan recount this chapter in Muir’s life. Danneberg’s lyrical, present-tense narrative transports readers to the rocky outcropping behind the falls. Hogan’s pastel illustrations bring Muir’s Yosemite to life. The book’s most striking spreads depict Muir behind the waterfall; these pictures capture both the falls’ mesmerizing quality and Muir’s wonder, allowing readers to share his excitement. What detracts from an otherwise compelling package are short, informative paragraphs that appear on some of the earlier spreads. Although they provide useful context, they would have been more effective in the book’s afterword.

In an essay about the adventure, Muir wrote that he was “better, not worse, for my wild bath in moonlit spray.” John Muir Wrestles a Waterfall encourages children to view nature as something wonderful to experience and protect – even if that force also poses danger.

-Dorothy A. Dahm

Trees for Peace

Wangari_300ppiWangari Maathai: The Woman Who Planted Millions of Trees
By Franck Prévot
Illustrated by Aurélia Fronty
Translated from the French by Dominique Clément
(Charlesbridge, 2015, Watertown, Massachusetts, $17.95)

Wangari Maathai lived a remarkable life by anyone’s standards. Born in 1940 to a poor family in rural Kenya, she was the first East African woman to earn a PhD and the first African woman to win the Nobel Peace Prize. Along the way, she worked both to protect Kenya’s land and people from exploitation; in her mind, environmental protection and human rights were closely aligned. Her environmental activism often took a simple and concrete form: planting trees in deforested areas and encouraging others, especially poor women, to do the same.

In Wangari Maathai: The Woman Who Planted Millions of Trees, Franck Prévot and Aurélia Fronty introduce young readers to the pioneering activist. Translator Dominique Clément ensures the picture-book biography retains the understated lyricism of the original French narrative: “In shade of the big mugumo, her mother teaches her that a tree is worth more than its wood, an expression Wangari never forgets.” Fronty’s colorful illustrations reflect the interconnectedness Maathai saw between all life. In one striking spread, a leopard poses gracefully in a tree with a slim, twisting trunk. The tendrils of other trees and even smaller plants intertwine with the trunk; a bird perches on one limb. Nearby, a young Wangari, whose name means “She who belongs to the leopard,” peeps from behind two large leaves. Other illustrations flirt with a symbolic surrealism. One spread shows the shoots of various plants, in vivid red, blue, and green, springing from Maathai’s fingertips. The plants’ veins extend down into her hand and arm; a red heart branches off from a vein in her hand, suggesting the love and interdependence that unite all life. A timeline of Maathai’s life and information about Kenya’s current political and environmental situation follow the narrative.

Both teaching tool and a work of art,  is a passionate look at the difference one person can make. It should inspire children and adults to improve their corner of the world – even if they only plant a tree.

-Dorothy A. Dahm

The Depths of Intelligence

9780544232709_hresThe Octopus Scientists: Exploring the Mind of a Mollusk
By Sy Montgomery
Photographs by Keith Ellenbogen
(Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 2015, Boston, $18.99)

One of the world’s most intriguing animals is neither vertebrate nor terrestrial: it is a marine mollusk with three hearts, eight arms, a venomous bite, and the ability to change color. In The Octopus Scientists, Sy Montgomery and photographer Keith Ellenbogen transport readers to French Polynesia, where an international team  of researchers is studying the Pacific Day Octopus. Montgomery’s delight is infectious as she introduces readers to individual octopuses, whose personalities range from reticent to curious to playful. Never condescending to her audience, she also describes the scientists’ adventures in the field and their colleagues’ equally exciting work in the laboratory. In addition, the book contains brief biographies of the various scientists on the team. Meanwhile, Ellenbogen’s photographs let readers travel below the surface of the tropical blue waters to meet an array of octopuses – and the other fascinating creatures who share their home. The Octopus Scientists should interest both kids and adults in octopuses and other marine life and the health of the ocean; it should also inspire a few to try snorkeling.

-Dorothy A. Dahm

A Galaxy of Interests

RRAB_Jemison_coverMae Jemison
By Jodie Shepherd
(Children’s Press: Scholastic, 2015, New York, $20.70)

The first African-American woman in space, Mae Jemison entered the U.S. space program in the early 1980s, a time when few women or African Americans became astronauts. She was also a medical doctor and Peace Corps alumna, a Renaissance woman with an insatiable curiosity about the world and a deep desire to improve it. In Mae Jemison, Jodie Shepherd tells her story for beginning readers. Colorful photos complement the simple, engaging text; fun facts about Jemison’s life and the history of space exploration supplement it. A poem about Jemison’s thirst for knowledge appears at the end of the book. Mae Jemison shows that nonfiction books for early readers can be exciting and that children can absorb new information even as they master basic reading skills. In fact, the very youngest students should learn about pioneers like Mae Jemison: her sense of adventure echoes the excitement children feel when they finally learn to read, and her refusal to limit herself should inspire kids and adults alike.

-Dorothy A. Dahm

From Camel to Spaceship

9780152059101_hresLives of the Explorers: Discoveries, Disasters (and What the Neighbors Thought)
By Kathleen Krull
Illustrated by Kathryn Hewitt
(Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 2014, Boston, $20.99)

When Americans think of explorers, they normally recall the names they learned in school: the men who brought large ships to the Western Hemisphere, set sailing records, and perhaps gave their name to various locations. In Lives of the Explorers, Kathleen Krull and illustrator Kathryn Hewitt introduce middle-grade readers to a host of discovering sorts, some of whom they will not cover in school.

Columbus, Magellan, and Hudson all receive a mention here, but the collective biography also celebrates earlier – and just as intrepid – travelers, including Marco Polo and Leif Ericson and twentieth-century innovators such as astronaut Sally Ride. In between come American pioneer Daniel Boone, African-American polar explorer Matthew Henson, and Isabella Bird and Mary Kingsley, English women who defied social convention to travel solo in the nineteenth century. Krull writes short profiles of each explorer, emphasizing each figure’s early life, thrilling adventures, and often colorful personality. Her accounts are never dull: readers learn just how Captain Cook disciplined his crew and what Jacques Piccard saw at the bottom of the ocean. Hewitt’s illustrations continue this lively approach as a gently humorous portrait of the subject accompanies each profile. For example, a huge, helmeted Magellan dances atop a tiny ship, and an enormous, but meditative Lewis, Clark, and Sacajewea crowd into a small canoe. Maps that show subjects’ routes and evoke early cartography appear with some profiles, so readers see just how far these men and women ventured from their homes.

The Lives of the Explorers frontispiece is a portrait of Tianfei, ancient Chinese goddess of seafarers. A small illustration spanning the dedication and title pages depicts a rocket blasting up into space. Hewitt has placed the rocket in the bottom half of the page: below it is steam and beyond it is white space. If humans have discovered much, there is still much left to explore, Hewitt and Krull suggest, and this is perhaps the most exciting message of this entertaining and inspiring book.

-Dorothy A. Dahm


A Naturalist’s Ramble

9780763664701John Muir: America’s First Environmentalist
By Kathryn Lasky
Illustrated by Stan Fellows
(Candlewick Press, 2006, Paperback Edition 2014, Somerville, Massachusetts, $4.99)

Best known as the naturalist behind the creation of Yosemite and other national parks and founder of the Sierra Club, John Muir explored some of America’s wildest places on foot. In John Muir: America’s First Environmentalist, Kathryn Lasky and illustrator Stan Fellows invite middle-grade readers to wonder with Muir at the land’s marvels.

The biography spends relatively little time on Muir’s landmark accomplishments, focusing instead on the various journeys he undertook as a younger man. Lasky’s lyrical prose illuminates the beauty the naturalist observed on his quests. For example, when a weary Muir rests in a cemetery, she writes, “But this graveyard was filled with birdsong and with grand old trees draped in long skeins of silvery moss…And so in this place of the dead, he found more life than he ever thought possible.”  Lasky also exposes readers to Muir’s scientific hypotheses: the threats he observed from overgrazing and logging and his ideas about glacial movements. Fellows’ paintings capture the grandeur of the mountain ranges Muir explored as well as the organisms – the flowers, insects, and birds – he saw. Many of the book’s spreads include small insets, sketches of the sort Muir himself would have produced on his rambles or miniatures of the birds, insects, and snowflakes he loved.

John Muir is not only a biography of the naturalist; it is a celebration of the adventure he lived and the land he loved. It should inspire young readers to explore and protect their own patch of greenery.

-Dorothy A. Dahm