November 15, 2007


Penguins. By Seymour Simon. Smithsonian/Collins. $16.99.

Spiders. By Seymour Simon. Smithsonian/Collins. $16.99.

Scholastic Book of World Records 2008. By Jenifer Corr Morse. Scholastic. $9.99.

Young Pelé: Soccer’s First Star. By Lesa Cline-Ransome. Illustrated by James E. Ransome. Schwartz & Wade. $16.99.

      Although fiction dominates most publishers’ lists of books for young readers, well-done nonfiction can be just as intriguing, imparting knowledge while providing enjoyment. Seymour Simon’s many science-focused books are good cases in point. His two newest, which belong to a series done in collaboration with the Smithsonian Institution, combine Simon’s no-nonsense approach to information with some stunning photography. Penguins discusses the similarities and differences among the 17 penguin species, explaining why these birds are such good swimmers, how they get rid of the salt water they inevitably swallow when feeding in the ocean, how they bond in mating season, and what enemies hunt them. Some of the photos here – of penguins in huge groups, of one sitting atop an egg, of them lined up to dive into the water – will doubtless be familiar to many young readers from nature documentaries and TV shows. But others, such as a photo of a huge crowd of fluffy penguin chicks with a single adult in their midst, are less familiar and equally wonderful.

      It is much less likely that kids will have seen the astonishing photos in Spiders before. Simon explains that the 40,000 different kinds of spiders do more good than harm, that most spiders have poor eyesight despite having eight eyes, that spiders produce several different kinds of silk, and that some spiders catch prey by stalking rather than by waiting for it to come to them. One of the most amazing photos here shows a jumping spider in mid-leap, about to pounce on a fly. Another shows a spider in extreme magnification, looking for all the world like a monstrous alien from a science-fiction movie. Also here is information on spiders whose venom is powerful enough to kill a person (such as the black widow), and others whose reputation is worse than their bite (such as the tarantula). This is a fascinating look at a creature that everyone sees all the time but about which most people, adults and children alike, know little.

      If what you want to know is who has the most country music awards, who is the world’s best-paid actress, or who is the world’s youngest billionaire, the place to turn is Scholastic Book of World Records 2008. As it does every year, this book of records highlights major accomplishments, successes, or simply the existence of record breakers in sports, nature, science, money and popular culture. The table of contents lets you turn quickly to a section that interests you, but the sections vary widely in length: 60-plus pages on sports, 30 on popular culture, fewer than 20 on money and business. This may make sense for young readers, but it does tend to present a skewed view of the world: this book goes for glitz, not depth. The highest-salaried NBA player is Kevin Garnett ($21 million a year); the world’s richest woman is Lilianne Bettencourt (worth $20.7 billion); the top-earning male singer is Bruce Springsteen ($55 million in 2006). Such numbers records can change, of course, but many items here remain reliably the same every year: largest ocean, fastest-flying insect, deadliest snake, longest insect migration, and so on. This book is scarcely comprehensive, but it is fun to dip into periodically, and the photos and illustrations are well done.

      One person not mentioned in the world-records book is soccer great Pelé, still considered the greatest soccer player of all time (although not the highest-paid: that is David Beckham). Using illustrations rather than photos, the wife-and-husband team of Lesa Cline-Ransome and James E. Ransome writes about young Pelé’s growing-up years in a small, poor Brazilian town; the ball made from rags that he used when honing his skills; the rocks he kicked every day on the way to school; and his early triumphs on the soccer field. The book is straightforward early-life biography, likely to be of interest to young soccer fans who have heard of this great player but never had a chance to see him (he was born in 1940 and most famous during the 1950s and 1960s; he retired in 1977). The “first star” part of the book’s title is not entirely accurate: the nickname Pelé is thought by many to be a tribute to an earlier major star, Bilé. And Young Pelé is not 100% factual: the Ransomes imagine some of Pelé’s feelings and expressions. But their narrative hews closely to the facts of Pelé’s early life, and is an uplifting story of one boy’s success in finding his way out of isolation and poverty.

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