May 15, 2014
(++++) LEARNING LEVELS
Park Scientists: Gila Monsters, Geysers, and Grizzly Bears in America’s Own Backyard. By Mary Kay Carson. Photographs by Tom Uhlman. Houghton Mifflin Harcourt. $18.99.
Biscuit Loves the Library. By Alyssa Satin Capucilli. Pictures by Pat Schories. Harper. $16.99.
Little Critter: Just a Kite. By Mercer Mayer. Harper. $16.99.
Pony Scouts: The Camping Trip. By Catherine Hapka. Pictures by Anne Kennedy. Harper. $16.99.
Justice League: I Am the Flash. By John Sazaklis. Pictures by Steven E. Gordon. Colors by Eric A. Gordon. Harper. $3.99.
Papá and Me. By Arthur Dorros. Pictures by Rudy Gutierrez. Rayo/HarperCollins. $6.99.
Park Scientists is an unusual entry in the always-high-quality “Scientists in the Field” series: instead of being an extended portrait of a single scientist or scientific group, it is a compendium. Its three parts are about Yellowstone National Park, Saguaro National Park, and Great Smoky Mountains National Park. This may make the book an easier entry point for this fascinating series than are some of the more-in-depth ones with a single focus. In fact, within the three sections, there are six subsections, giving young readers a chance to find out what scientists do when studying water and heat – and bears – at Yellowstone; gila monsters and saguaro cacti at Saguaro; and salamanders and fireflies at Great Smoky Mountains. The individual stories are so interesting that kids may want to seek out further information elsewhere; but even if they do not, they will get a good, solid grounding in everyday scientific pursuits here, with straightforward and easy-to-follow prose from Mary Kay Carson complemented by loads of excellent photos by Tom Uhlman. Explanations of the difference between fumaroles and geysers, of how gila monsters live and why they are a protected species, of the reasons the saguaro forest today remains smaller than it was in 1935 – these subjects and many more are explored and shown pictorially, along with photos of the scientists and their helpers (many of them volunteers) going about their everyday work with dedication and a certain degree of relish. A nice element of Park Scientists is that one area of study, fireflies, is one to which readers may be able to relate immediately in their own lives, making charts such as the one showing the flash patterns of different types of fireflies into something more than dry laboratory material. In fact, there is nothing dry at all about this book, which shows both the mundane aspects of everyday science and the highly interesting subject matter that researchers methodically investigate.
Much easier entry points – to reading in general – are provided in the “I Can Read!” series, which includes books with pleasantly familiar characters at five different reading levels. The earliest, “My First” books (“ideal for sharing with emergent readers”), offer a good opportunity for parents or older siblings to read along with not-yet-readers, who can pick up the words in their own time and at their own pace. Biscuit Loves the Library, featuring the adorable puppy on “Read to a Pet Day” at the local library, and Little Critter: Just a Kite, in which Mercer Mayer’s Little Critter has simple adventures and misadventures with family and kite-flying, are both fine examples of how the earliest-level books in this series work. Biscuit discovers books on various topics, upends a basket full of puppets, is intrigued by headphones used for “stories we can listen to,” and eventually is helped by the librarian to find an ideal book – about a dog that looks exactly like Biscuit. Mix together a little girl, a little puppy, a comfy chair, and other young readers with pets nearby, and all the fun of the library comes through with pleasant warmth. As for Little Critter, he practices for a kite-flying contest with a store-bought kite, but things go awry and the kite is broken – and the store has no more. So Grandpa makes a new kite, which Little Critter decorates himself. But, again, there is a problem: this time the string breaks and the kite flies away. Grandpa comes to the rescue again, and the unusual new kite he makes not only flies well but also brings Little Critter “a ribbon for the most unusual kite,” while bringing young readers an enjoyable family adventure.
Later-level books in the “I Can Read!” series are more of a mixed bag. Two that get (+++) ratings are The Camping Trip, which is 10th in the Pony Scouts series within this early-reading series, and I Am the Flash, which is strictly for devotees of DC Comics superheroes. These are Level 2 books, intended as “high-interest stories for developing readers,” but in fact their interest level will be somewhat limited – they are best for kids who have already formed attachments to the featured characters. The Camping Trip focuses on Meg’s first time camping, which she expects will be just like a sleepover – but discovers to be quite different, despite the presence of the ponies. The bathroom is a five-minute walk from the sleeping area, Meg cannot put up the tent properly, she is unprepared for bugs, she has not brought a flashlight, and so on. A “ghost pony” story scares everyone but turns out, of course, to be nothing worth being frightened about, and Meg snuggles in happily with her friends, and that is that. As for I Am the Flash, it is somewhat sillier than even the usual DC Comics offerings, largely because so much is compressed into it: the Flash’s entire origin story is told before the book turns to the meat of the tale, what there is of it, which involves a breakout from a singularly unconvincing jail by five super-villains who are captured with remarkable (indeed, ridiculous) ease by the Flash and other Justice League members. The plot of this paperback is thinner than the book itself, and the poses of heroes and villains alike are so stylized and overdone that they make it difficult to understand what will attract most kids to the book. Still, some kids will want to read it, and for those who do, it will provide a small amount of action featuring heroes that it is likely young readers will quickly outgrow, at least in a form as superficial as this.
An equally easy book to read – and a more valuable one for its slice-of-everyday-life approach that involves no make-believe superheroes – is Arthur Dorros’ Papá and Me, originally published in 2008 and now available in paperback. Papá and Me shows a day of great but simple fun for a boy and his Papá, and includes some Spanish phrases (clearly understandable in context) in its English-language story. Arthur Dorros’ tale follows the boy and his father as they have breakfast, go to the park, draw, race, and the boy learns that “I can do some things better than Papá, he can do some better than me.” Rudy Gutierrez’ pictures, which are all swirls and color blends, give the book a unique appearance and help propel it to a final hug that also includes the boy’s grandparents. There is much to learn here – about fathers and sons, about extended families, and about the warm way in which caring parents relate to their children in any culture. Although it is not part of any particular early-reading series, Papá and Me works very well as an easy book to read, as an introduction to Spanish words for children whose native language is English, and as a way for Spanish-speaking families to celebrate themselves bilingually.