December 30, 2010


Where Did Dinosaurs Come From? By Kathleen Weidner Zoehfeld. Illustrated by Lucia Washburn. Collins. $16.99.

Flat Stanley’s Worldwide Adventures #6: The African Safari Discovery. By Josh Greenhut. Pictures by Macky Pamintuan. Harper. $15.99.

Transformers: Hunt for the Decepticons—Buddy Brawl. Adapted by Lucy Rosen. Illustrations by MADA Design, Inc. Harper. $3.99.

     It is possible to communicate some complex subjects in language simple enough to be understood even by kindergartners. That is what happens in “Stage 2” books in the “Let’s-Read-and-Find-Out” science series, such as Where Did Dinosaurs Come From? Intended for ages 5-9, Kathleen Weidner Zoehfeld’s book tackles an interesting subject that is the opposite, more or less, of the more-typical “why did dinosaurs all disappear?” The question of where dinosaurs came from may not be “the biggest mystery of all,” as Zoehfeld calls it, but it is certainly a subject well worth exploring, and Zoehfeld does so by discussing the fossil record, then explaining how animals with backbones first became able to live their whole lives on land. Interestingly, she shows how the “weird, two-tusked plant eaters and meat eaters with big, sharp teeth” of 250 million years ago must have been ancestors of mammals, not of dinosaurs – using a simple but clear anatomy lesson to explain why that must be so. Then she talks about animals that were dinosaur ancestors, explaining how the earliest dinosaurs “eked out a living in a world dominated by big crocodile relatives” known as archosaurs. It was only after the archosaurs died out (no one knows why) that dinosaurs really flourished. Zoehfeld’s explanation of what happened is clear, intelligently written and simple to follow without being simplistic. And Lucia Washburn’s careful, well-wrought illustrations help bring the age of dinosaurs and their ancestors vividly to life. This book will be challenging for less-adept readers in its target age range, but those who rise to the challenge will find it fascinating.

     The Flat Stanley’s Worldwide Adventures series is designed for slightly older readers – ages 7-10 -- but is, in many ways, simpler. The African Safari Discovery is a chapter book, based on the character created by Jeff Brown but actually written by Josh Greenhut; and it is packed with suitable if not very distinguished illustrations by Macky Pamintuan. In this book, Flat Stanley is still flat, and his parents are worried about him, so when a flat skull is reported to have been discovered in Africa, Stanley’s father, George, decides to investigate, taking along Stanley and his brother, Arthur. There is a safari, an encounter with helpful African natives, a scene in which Stanley is used as an oar to row a canoe, and an encounter with “Dr. Livingston Fallows, the world’s greatest ologist” (which means the man claims to be an anthropologist, paleontologist, archaeologist and more). The flat skull, when it turns up, proves quite unhelpful, but everyone decides that the trip was enjoyable anyway. There is not much science here, and the story itself is about as flat as Stanley’s body, but the book is an easy and pleasant read that will please at least some young fans of the original Jeff Brown stories about Stanley.

     Easy reading goes in a different direction in the “I Can Read!” series, in which Buddy Brawl is at Level 2, “Reading with Help” (for ages 4-8, although mostly for kindergartners and some first-graders). This entry in the series called Transformers: Hunt for the Decepticons is, of course, for Transformers fans, and is designed to teach a simple lesson while letting kids enjoy the adventures of these shapeshifting robots. The story has two of the good robots, Bumblebee and Wheelie, getting into an argument instead of working together, then finding out that cooperation is what they need to defeat the bad robot Starscream. There is nothing subtle here in either the drawing or the writing: “BOOM! Optimus Prime suddenly appeared!” But subtlety is not the point at all: this series is designed to engage beginning readers through very simple stories about characters with which they are already familiar – the tales being told in very simple language. This is far from great literature, and far even from the fascination of a book such as Where Did Dinosaurs Come From? But if Buddy Brawl and similar books get young readers interested enough to move on to works about dinosaurs – or about Flat Stanley, for that matter – then they have accomplished what they set out to do.

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