April 10, 2008


Earthquakes and Volcanoes FYI. By Melissa Stewart. Smithsonian/Collins. $16.99.

Volcanoes. By Franklyn M. Branley. Illustrated by Megan Lloyd. Collins. $16.99.

Pale Male: Citizen Hawk of New York City. By Janet Schulman. Illustrated by Meilo So. Knopf. $16.99.

      All these books do a very good job of communicating facts to preteen and younger readers, but they go about what they do in very different ways. Earthquakes and Volcanoes FYI takes an inherently interesting subject and dresses it up with lots of pictures, Web links, and interviews. Volcanoes uses illustrations rather than photographs and provides simpler text for younger readers. And Pale Male takes a true story and presents it as a narrative that reads like fiction – with illustrations that make it seem to take place in its own world.

      Because earthquakes and volcanoes are related phenomena, it makes sense to include both in the same scientifically oriented book. Still, Melissa Stewart’s explanation of what these geological events have to do with each other appears only in a transitional section of Earthquakes and Volcanoes FYI – essentially, this work is two books in one, the first one on earthquakes (ending with an interview with a Smithsonian Institution geologist) and the second on volcanoes (ending with an interview with a Smithsonian Institution geographer). The earthquakes section not only shows the devastation wrought by quakes but also offers some matter-of-fact photos that are fascinating in their own way, such as one showing villagers in India walking past a crack in the earth caused by a quake. In addition to information on what earthquakes are, why they occur and where they are most likely to happen, this section lists the 10 deadliest quakes in recorded history, speculates about whether animals know when an earthquake is coming, and explains why it is so hard for scientists to predict quakes – although instruments to detect them have been around since the days of ancient China. In the section on volcanoes, there are excellent pictures of volcanoes and lava flows, plus a discussion of the Volcanic Explosivity Index, a close look at lava (including information on different types), a list of the 10 deadliest known volcanic eruptions, and an explanation of why volcanic ash is a danger to airplanes even though pilots cannot see it. The text is straightforward and to the point, with “Smithsonian link” suggestions for further information and lots of interesting tidbits of information.

      Volcanoes is designed to give some of the same information – mostly on the volcanic side, although there are brief mentions of earthquakes as well – to children ages 5-9. To that end, this book – written at Stage 2 of the Let’s-Read-and-Find-Out Science series – is more in “story” format, opening with the eruption of Mount Vesuvius in 79 A.D. and then discussing the effects of some more-recent eruptions. When Franklyn M. Branley moves into the scientific sphere, he comes up with fine age-appropriate explanations, as when he says that Earth’s layers of solid rock “are broken into huge sections called plates. ...Under the plates there is very hot rock. The plates move on the hot rock, which is soft like dough. They don’t move much, only about as fast as your fingernails grow. But they keep moving year after year after year.” The illustrations by Megan Lloyd do not come close to the photos in Earthquakes and Volcanoes FYI in terms of showing the devastating effects of volcanoes and earthquakes, but Lloyd’s clear diagrams of the processes that cause volcanic eruptions will help young children understand these vast geological events. The end-of-book “erupting volcano” project can be an enjoyable hands-on supplement to the text.

      Janet Schulman takes an even stronger “storyline” approach in Pale Male than Branley and Lloyd do in Volcanoes. Schulman’s book is about a red-tailed hawk that built a nest atop a very fancy and expensive building on Fifth Avenue in Manhattan – provoking the ire of the buildings’ residents but the joy of birdwatchers and, eventually, of New Yorkers at large. Schulman’s story is focused on the bird and its progeny – short shrift is given to the wealthy building residents who complained about the feathers, bird waste and remains of dead animals dropped in front of their homes – and Meilo So’s lovely watercolors turn the story into a celebration of nature and the natural world existing in an unexpected place and overcoming many obstacles to survival. The hawks, Schulman writes in one of many instances of anthropomorphizing, “were true-blue New Yorkers – tough, resourceful, and determined to make it in the city.” This book is not, it could be argued, an entirely fair presentation, but it certainly reflects accurately the things that happened when the building owners tried to oust Pale Male and his mates after they had lived on the roof for nine years: there were protests organized by the Audubon Society, the noise from cars and trucks was incessant, traffic was blocked, and the owners finally capitulated and let the hawks come back (after building a contraption below the nest to catch the birds’ garbage). Clearly, the idea is that preteens will read the book simply as a tale of nature triumphant over nasty people, while their parents will presumably enjoy its political viewpoint: Schulman writes that the birds were evicted “during a time when many conservation and wildlife laws were being relaxed by President George W. Bush’s administration.” Yet the one-sidedness of the narration is somewhat overdone, and for that reason the book gets a (+++) rating. The story of Pale Male really is inspirational – enough so that it does not need to be nudged into the spheres of politics and implied class warfare.

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