September 18, 2014


Our Solar System. By Seymour Simon. Harper. $17.99.

In the Rainforest. By Kate Duke. Harper. $17.99.

     Books are a wonderful way for young readers – and adults, too – to visit places where they will probably never go in person. Seymour Simon’s ubiquitous simplified-science books take kids ages 6-10 just about everywhere on Earth – and, in the case of Our Solar System, elsewhere. Originally published in 1992 and updated in 2007, Our Solar System is now available in an again-updated edition that explains, among other things, why Pluto has been “demoted” in designation from planet to “dwarf planet.” There are three requirements for a planet, and it turns out that Pluto does not meet the third of them: it cannot clear other, smaller rocky or icy bodies out of its way as it orbits the sun. It is also interesting to learn that the dwarf planet Eris, discovered only in 2003, is larger than Pluto. Simon’s photo-essay here – most of his books are in photo-essay form – goes well beyond focusing on the sun and its planets. It certainly has plenty to say about the planets, including such fascinating tidbits of information as the fact that Venus has large craters but no small ones – because its “atmosphere is so dense that it stops smaller incoming meteors before they can hit the ground and make a crater” – and that Earth is 27 miles wider at the equator than at the poles. But there is also a lot here about the planets’ moons: Jupiter’s Ganymede and Saturn’s Titan are larger than the planet Mercury; Jupiter’s Io has exploding volcanoes; Uranus’ Miranda has strange and extensive surface features even though it is only 300 miles across; Neptune’s Triton is colder than any other object ever measured in the solar system; and so on. Add well-researched information on comets, asteroids and the sun itself, and you have another of Simon’s always-interesting,  amply and very beautifully illustrated introductions to science – one that in this case is not only of this world but also out of this world.

     For slightly younger readers, ages 4-8, and anyone fascinated by tropical rainforests and interested in learning more about them and the creatures that live there, In the Rainforest is a well-written Stage 2 book in the “Let’s-Read-and-Find-Out Science” series – this stage being one that explores comparatively challenging concepts. Nicely paced by the late Kate Duke (1956-2014) and pleasantly illustrated by her using a variety of media – pen and ink, watercolor, acrylic, pencils and pastels – In the Rainforest starts by telling readers what to bring on their imaginary tour (bug repellent, waterproof box for snacks, etc.) and what to leave at home (blue jeans, which take too long to dry; chocolate, which will melt). The make-believe journey shows a guide taking children through the understory region (where plants and animals live on the ground) as well as the arboreal one (up in the huge trees). The book explains epiphytes (plants that grow on other plants), the emergent forest layer (the tops of the tallest trees), different kinds of ants, and living places underground that can only be seen with “magic X-ray goggles.” There is a kind of “circle of rainforest life” illustration – shaped more like a rainbow – that shows the interrelationship among the forest’s sections. There is a discussion of the reasons people cut down some parts of these forests, and the effects of those actions. And there is a list of some of the things that have been discovered in rainforests, such as chocolate, vanilla, sugar, rice, coffee, dyes, rubber and medicines. The back of the book not only lists some places with rainforest exhibits but also contains instructions on making your own rainforest terrarium – a neat and not-too-difficult do-it-yourself project for home or school. Far from comprehensive but serving as a highly useful introduction to a complex topic, In the Rainforest may whet (if not “wet”) kids’ appetites for more information on a part of our planet that few will likely have a chance to visit on their own.

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