December 31, 2014
(++++) MAKING NONFICTION PALATABLE
100 Most Destructive Natural Disasters. By Anna Claybourne. Scholastic. $7.99.
Fly Guy Presents: Insects. By Tedd Arnold. Scholastic. $3.99.
Scholastic, as its name implies but its books do not always show, has a strong interest in education – and although most of its releases nowadays are outside the instructional realm, Scholastic has found ways to make information presentation interesting and attractive for young readers when it does release nonfiction books. Given the intensely visual focus of most young readers today, and indeed of society as a whole, the approach of these two books – one targeting third to sixth graders and one intended for kindergarten to second grade – makes a great deal of sense. 100 Most Destructive Natural Disasters, aimed at the older group, includes certain categories of havoc that readers will likely have heard of, such as earthquakes, tornadoes, floods and tsunamis. But it also discusses some less-familiar types of disasters: limnic eruptions (in which dissolved carbon dioxide suddenly emerges from deep lake water), lahars (fast-flowing rivers of mud), and sinkholes – such as one in Turkmenistan that has been burning for more than 40 years. Each event gets a very brief description laid atop photos of the event itself (if available) or the area where the event took place – enough for a basic understanding, and plenty to whet readers’ appetites for more information to be found elsewhere. Each event also gets a rating of one to five bombs (which, however, look a little too cartoony to be scary: a bit like oranges with stems). You might expect from the book’s title that the ratings would be unneeded, since every disaster would get a “five,” but in fact many get much lower ratings. The Chicago seiche of 1954, for example, gets only a two (a seiche is a storm surge that occurs in a lake or harbor). On the other hand, the volcanic eruptions of both Taupo and Laki get ratings of five: Taupo, a supervolcano in New Zealand, had the biggest eruption in the last 5,000 years (about 1,800 years ago), while Laki, in Iceland, had a slow, eight-month-long eruption in 1783 that was the deadliest on record, claiming (directly or indirectly) 6,000,000 lives. Author Anna Claybourne, who wrote the text in a book that is anything but text-heavy, does a good job of providing general information as well as specifics about individual disasters. For instance, on the page devoted to the Natchez, Mississippi, tornado of 1840, which killed 317 people, she explains the Fujita Scale that is now used to rank tornado strength, and on the page about the Loma Prieta earthquake of 1989, she explains the MM (Moment Magnitude) scale, which seismologists now use in place of the better-known Richter scale. 100 Most Destructive Natural Disasters is, by its nature, a series of tidbits rather than an in-depth look at anything, but what it does offer is well-chosen and well-presented, and its illustrations have sufficient impact to show why specific events are included. There is even a bit of reassurance here, with Claybourne explaining that “over time, most types of natural disasters have become a little less dangerous” thanks to better scientific predictions and improved communications to get warnings out to people who could be affected.
For younger readers, Tedd Arnold’s Fly Guy and his boy, Buzz, make surprisingly adept guides to creatures such as dinosaurs and sharks – and, now, insects. You would expect Fly Guy to do a good job with this topic, and he does. Although this book is written even more simply than 100 Most Destructive Natural Disasters, it is structured similarly, with an emphasis on photographs, minimal text, and commentary delivered by Buzz while Fly Guy flits about the pages. There are plenty of interesting facts here: a queen ant may live 30 years, while an adult mayfly dies after only one or two nights; cockroaches and ants eat almost anything (mentioned on a page where Buzz is sticking out his tongue and grimacing as Fly Guy – who is, after all, a fly – is gorging himself out of sight in a garbage can); grasshoppers and caterpillars chew their food; a person who collects flies is called a dipterist; and so on. Readers get information on prehistoric insects, such as dragonflies with wings stretching more than two feet and a kind of centipede almost as long as a lion; an explanation of insect life cycles; and reasons that insects are beneficial. Flies – or as Fly Guy puts it, “Flyzzz!” – get two whole pages, a lot in a 32-page book, with information on how long a fly needs to plan an escape route (less than a second) and how fast it can fly (45 miles per hour). Fans of Fly Guy are the obvious target audience for Fly Guy Presents: Insects, but even kids who are not familiar with the fictional adventures of Fly Guy and Buzz will enjoy this easy-to-read, easy-to-understand introduction to the more-than-a-million different kinds of insects on Earth.