May 03, 2012


Ocean Sunlight: How Tiny Plants Feed the Seas. By Molly Bang & Penny Chisholm. Blue Sky Press/Scholastic. $18.99.

Mrs. Harkness and the Panda. By Alicia Potter. Illustrated by Melissa Sweet. Knopf. $16.99.

Falcon. By Tim Jessell. Random House. $17.99.

The Smiley Book of Colors. By Ruth Kaiser. Golden Books. $8.99.

      There are many ways to explain natural wonders to young readers, and even the most straightforward, when well presented, are fascinating.  Ocean Sunlight is simply about phytoplankton – but not “simply” at all, since these microscopic plants are the basis of the entire oceanic food chain, even though they cannot be seen by the human eye.  In fact, the minuscule creatures that eat them, zooplankton, are also invisible – or subvisible.  But there are so many zooplankton in the seas that these tiny creatures eat a billion billion billion phytoplankton every single day.  And there are so many phytoplankton that their numbers stay about the same – that is, a billion billion billion new ones are produced daily.  These are gigantic, incomprehensible numbers, which Molly Bang and Penny Chisholm do not attempt to explain or make more understandable.  Instead, they show how these tiniest of ocean dwellers owe their existence to sunlight, and how the smallest plants and animals are eaten by larger ones, which are eaten by still bigger ones, and so on through the entire food chain.  And then, since the book’s title is Ocean Sunlight, Bang and Chisholm venture a difficult question: where do animals that live in the depths, where sunlight never penetrates, get their food?  Fascinating drawings and simple explanations of complex concepts, such as Marine snow and water-layer mixing, explain how the sun is ultimately responsible for life, even in areas where its light cannot reach directly.  This is an amazing journey, and one that will likely so fascinate young readers they will want to know more.  Bang and Chisholm start them on the road to greater knowledge with what could be called a six-page “de-simplification” process at the end of the book, explaining the underlying chemical reactions illustrated in the main portion of their story and discussing ways in which things are considerably more complex than the main part of Ocean Sunlight indicates.  These six pages are also simplified, but not nearly as much as the main body of the book, and this somewhat-more-detailed material should fascinate budding scientists while teaching all young readers that, although “there are so many important, related concepts that we could not possibly cover them all in this book,” Bang and Chisholm can explain a difficult subject simply and interestingly enough to encourage children to seek out more in-depth information elsewhere.

      A natural-history story told in a more personal way, Mrs. Harkness and the Panda is about the brave woman who traveled to China in 1936 and brought back to the United States the first panda cub ever seen.  Literally following in the footsteps of her husband, who had died looking for the giant panda, Ruth Harkness – a woman who had never gone exploring and knew little about animals – succeeded in a remarkable quest that ended when she found a baby panda that she named Su Lin (“a little bit of something very cute,” as Alicia Potter explains).  Feeding Su Lin from a bottle, taking the time to scatter her husband’s ashes in the Chinese mountains, and presenting her guide with her own wedding band to give to his fiancĂ©e, Mrs. Harkness accomplished what naysayers worldwide had said could not be done.  Thanks to Potter’s enjoyable narration and a series of lovely watercolor and mixed-media illustrations by Melissa Sweet – some of which include objects from the time and place of the story, including  photos of Mrs. Harkness with Su Lin – the tale unfolds naturally as well as excitingly, and a timeline after the narrative clarifies just what happened and when.  At the end of the book, Potter points out that people today might question the wisdom of taking a baby panda from the wild, but she explains about differing standards of different time periods and points out that many conservationists today admire Mrs. Harkness’ contribution to zoology.  It is a shame, although probably inevitable in today’s climate of ecological political correctness, that this semi-apology is needed, because this is an altogether wonderful and uplifting story – and one that made the modern, more-nuanced handling of the giant panda possible (pandas were hunted and killed for sport before Mrs. Harkness brought Su Lin to the Brookfield Zoo in Illinois).  As the tale of a courageous and determined woman, and the little-known story of how the worldwide fascination with pandas began, Mrs. Harkness and the Panda is as enjoyable and moving as it is informative.

      The human-animal interaction in Falcon is of a different sort.  This is a book carried by Tim Jessell’s wonderful illustrations more than by his words.  It is simply the story of a boy’s dream of being a falcon, and once the boy’s imagination is captured, the scene shifts from ground level to the heights that falcons occupy and command.  Jessell, who has been a falconer for 25 years, beautifully portrays the beauty and majesty of the bird, showing it soaring amid mountains, over meadows, along the coastline, and eventually to “the man-made cliffs of a great booming city.”  Certainly Jessell romanticizes the falcon and its life, but this is, after all, a boy’s dream, and the scenes of the falcon’s adventures are so captivating that readers will be swept right into them.  Jessell changes perspective frequently and sometimes startlingly – notably when one illustration shows the distant falcon atop a building, looking down toward pigeons far below and in the foreground, while the next shows the falcon in extreme closeup, looking out over the city as if surveying a mountainous land where he is master of all he beholds.  The accurate portrayals of the way a falcon soars and the way it dives are neatly coupled with fanciful ideas, such as one showing the falcon deliberately teasing city dwellers by diving toward them at full speed, then pulling up just over their heads, to their amazement and “the sound of surprised laughter.”  Falcon is a lovely combination of the real and unreal, a journey into a young boy’s imagination as well as a trip into the world of a bird that Jessell clearly not only loves but also respects.

      A more-amusing real-world jaunt is The Smiley Book of Colors, which is based on a Web site called, where everyday objects – looked at in just the right way – turn out to resemble those stylized smiley faces with dots for eyes and an upturned mouth.  There is nothing to this book except the unlikely smileys themselves – some of those identified on the final page and inside back cover are “motorcycle smiley,” “irrigation cap smiley,” “toolbox stuff smiley,” “doctor’s tape smiley,” “stapler smiley” and “headphones smiley.”:  To give the book a touch of structure, Ruth Kaiser arranges the smileys within its pages by color (red, orange, yellow, purple and so on) and provides a touch of simple, uplifting poetry for each batch of smileys: “Might all be okay?/ Might it really be fine?/ Tell yourself, “Yes!”/ Life is yours to define!”  The poems are a bit overdone, actually – too much optimism starts to seem forced – but the smileys themselves are amusing enough to make up for any lack in the words.  Part of the fun here is trying to figure out just what is making a particular smiley.  The buttons and zipper from a pants pocket are pretty obvious, but a closeup of the inside of a cut fruit (with two seeds for eyes) is less so, and a picture in which the “mouth” seems to be made of spilled chocolate on the front of a cabinet is pretty much incomprehensible.  The Smiley Book of Colors gets a (+++) rating: it is fun, but monochromatic in presentation and text if not in the actual colors of the smileys.  A little of this goes a long way, which may be why the whole concept works well as an ever-changing Web site but less well as a static (although certainly attractive-looking) bound book.

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