October 13, 2011


Swirl by Swirl: Spirals in Nature. By Joyce Sidman. Pictures by Beth Krommes. Houghton Mifflin. $16.99.

Everest, Book Two: The Climb. By Gordon Korman. Scholastic. $5.99.

     From spiral-arm galaxies to chipmunks curled up in spirals in their underground burrows, Joyce Sidman and Beth Krommes consider one of nature’s most common and most interesting shapes in Swirl by Swirl. The main part of the book does not actually explain the ubiquity of spirals of all sizes – it simply shows many circumstances in which the shape appears and discusses elements of what makes a spiral a spiral. For example, “a spiral is a growing shape” shows spirals that start small and get larger, such as nautilus shells – shown both in cross section and in the form of living nautiluses. “A spiral is a strong shape” explains that “its outer curves protect what’s inside,” and the pictures show such creatures as a land snail and a European hedgehog – the latter curled into a spiral ball as a red fox sniffs it curiously. It is unusual to treat shapes as if they had emotions, but Sidman’s text does just that, calling a spiral “clever” and “graceful” and saying that it is “bold.” For these comments, Krommes provides pictures of breaking ocean waves and such flowers as daisies and calla lilies. Larger and larger spirals are shown, from a tidal whirlpool to a funnel tornado to, at last, a galaxy, and every picture is drawn to emphasize the spiral-ness of what is portrayed and also to show beauty – even the tornado has grace and lovely proportions. From the largest spirals, Sidman and Krommes return at the end to the small “snuggling shape” with which the book begins. But it is only after the story itself is told that end notes explain how spirals “work so well in so many ways.” This is the place where, in brief, readers learn about the spiral-shaped DNA helix and the frequency of Fibonacci spirals (organized mathematically: each number is the sum of the two previous ones). Here too are explanations of how waves, whirlpools and tornados form and how spiraling in flowers “makes the best use of space and sunlight.” These two explanatory pages are the most fascinating part of the book – everything that comes before is artistic and decorative, but a little lacking in substance. This is one case in which parents should be sure that children read the back-of-the-book material – or, even better, adults and kids can read it and learn together.

     The second book in Gordon Korman’s three-book Everest series is about a something in nature that is bigger than many spirals and smaller than others – and that has loomed large in the human imagination for many years. The Climb, first published in 2002 and now available in paperback, follows The Contest, in which an energy-drink company holds a competition to sponsor the youngest climber ever to surmount Everest. The first book follows several young would-be climbers competing for a place on the four-person teen climbing team. The Climb takes the four young people up the mountain. Korman paces the whole book for action, throwing in some surprises as well (one involving a Slinky that freezes is both dramatic and amusing). The teens, along with the expedition leader, a doctor and a cameraman, have prepared for the climb in tough conditions in Alaska, but Everest, of course, throws even more difficulties at them. Dominic, Perry, Sammi and Tilt are all tested in different ways. It is Dominic’s bravery that will pull most readers into and through the story, especially since it results in the heroic rescue of other climbers. But to make Dominic appealing, Korman paints him as headstrong and unwilling to listen to others or follow a number of rules, including ones designed to keep him and other climbers safe. This makes for appealingly dramatic scenes, but it is also very misleading in terms of the real world: failure to take things very carefully and to listen to the voice of experience is likely to be fatal on any mountain climb, and especially so when climbing Everest. The Climb ends before anyone reaches the top of the mountain – the third book, The Summit, takes the story to its conclusion. There is certainly enough drama and tragedy in The Climb to make young readers eager to find out what happens next; but despite the realism of the setting and the accurate information on mountain climbing, the somewhat overdone interpersonal dynamics mean that The Climb is more melodrama than realistic fiction.

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