August 18, 2016


The Dolphins of Shark Bay. By Pamela S. Turner. Photographs by Scott Tuason. Houghton Mifflin Harcourt. $9.99.

Snakes. By Nic Bishop. Scholastic. $3.99.

Fly Guy Presents: Weather. By Tedd Arnold. Scholastic. $3.99.

     Young readers, from those who are just learning to read on their own to those with more-advanced reading skills, have plenty of books that can help them understand the world around them in accurate but still entertaining ways. The excellent “Scientists in the Field” series skews toward older children and a comparatively straightforward approach to narrative – and its looks at the everyday lives of real-world scientists are invariably fascinating. Pamela S. Turner’s The Dolphins of Shark Bay, originally published in 2013 and now available in paperback, is about the only known tool-using dolphins on Earth. These marine mammals find and tear off sponges, use them to uncover edible fish, drop the sponges to eat the fish, remember where they dropped the sponges so they can go back and get them again, and then repeat the process. These dolphins live in the waters off Australia and have been studied for more than 25 years by a research team led by Janet Mann, whose work is at the center of the book. The interaction between humans (scientists or not) and dolphins is unpredictable. For example, at one point Mann discovered that humans were unwittingly raising infant mortality rates among a group of dolphins, at a place called Monkey Mia, by feeding them: dolphin mothers who took food from people learned to beg from beachgoers and boaters, but did not spend enough time nursing their calves or protecting them from sharks. As a result, the calves had a high mortality rate: “Monkey Mia’s baby dolphins starved in a stew of good intentions.” Yet this book is scarcely a generalized condemnation of human behavior toward dolphins; it is more nuanced than that. Still, it shows again and again just how delicate – and amazing – the balance of nature can be. Scott Tuason’s photographs bring the scientific research to life in truly remarkable ways: a dolphin leaps high out of the water, possibly to dislodge an irritating lamprey or possibly just for fun; a shark makes a meal of a dugong carcass; a newborn dolphin calf pops above water to breathe; a dolphin hydroplanes in the shallows to catch a fish; another holds a trumpet shell out of the water and shakes it. These and other photos, along with Turner’s narrative, never quite answer a question posed early in the book: why are dolphins intelligent? This is a query with profound implications – after all, sharks have small brains, as Turner points out, but are extremely successful in evolutionary terms. Brain power is only one survival strategy – one to which we humans gravitate, since we share it, but not necessarily the “best” in any significant way. Turner ends the book with a discussion of whether dolphins can be said to have culture, and what “having culture” really means. There is no answer here – whether the query is even answerable is a matter of opinion – but this is the sort of thoughtfulness that can get young readers interested in these scientists in particular and in science in general. After all, as Mann remarks, “The dolphins’ interactions with each other are far richer, more complex, and more interesting than any interactions they have with us.”

     Shorter, simpler, illustration-heavy books for much younger readers – as young as kindergartners – are invariably less thought-provoking, but can provide a good basis for kids to read more-complex works later as they become more interested in the world we live in. Two new Scholastic “Level 2 Readers” are good examples of this form of real-world learning.  Snakes by nature photographer Nic Bishop, a simplification of his book of the same title from 2012, features Bishop’s wonderful  close-up pictures of snakes’ appearances and activities. From an astonishing view of an egg-eating snake swallowing a meal four times the size of its head, to a hognose snake pretending to be dead to fool predators, to a beautiful close view of an infant Honduran milk snake emerging from its egg, Bishop captures snakes’ colors and distinguishing characteristics with a precision that would make any herpetologist (a scientist who studies snakes) proud. But his narrative is not equal to his photography. The first three words in the book are “snakes are scary,” which is not a good way to introduce young children to fascinating animals with which they may be unfamiliar. And Bishop shows a disproportionate number of venomous snakes, presumably because so many have such striking appearances – even though only about 11% of all snake species are venomous, and few of those have venom strong enough to harm humans.  Bishop’s Level 2 Snakes, like the longer version on which it is based, is lovely to look at as an example of gorgeous photography of fascinating animals. But its spare text, while it provides very basic information on snakes in an age-appropriate way, is best seen as a doorway through which young readers can go on their way to get more-detailed, more-balanced information elsewhere.

     Tedd Arnold’s Fly Guy Presents: Weather is at the same reading level, and like other entries in the Fly Guy Presents series, will be particularly enjoyable for kids who are already fans of the fictional adventures of Fly Guy and his boy, Buzz. The book is narrated by Buzz, with occasional comments from Fly Guy but, more often, with Fly Guy being used as visual comic relief – for instance, when Buzz explains that weather originates in outer space, Fly Guy is seen flying about in a space suit, and when Buzz mentions that cumulus clouds look like cotton candy, Fly Guy is hovering nearby eating cotton candy. There is good basic information here on how weather happens, and some material that young readers will likely find especially interesting, such as the fact that a rainbow’s colors always appear in the same order (Arnold shows what they are but does not give the “Roy G. Biv” acronym). Fly Guy is amusing in a rain slicker and a snow suit; Buzz’s drawing of a pinwheel to illustrate the shape of a hurricane as seen from space is a useful visual aid; and the explanation of Earth’s four basic climates (desert, polar, temperate and tropical) is nicely done and readily understandable. In fact, adults may appreciate some of the simple, straightforward explanations here, which are not often provided in standard weather reports: “A hurricane forms when a group of thunderstorms spins over warm oceans. As this group of storms becomes stronger, winds rush to its center. This causes the entire group to spin, forming one massive storm.” The basics of the water cycle are also well explained and clearly illustrated. Fly Guy Presents: Weather is a good example of how skillful writing and attractive illustrations – including lots of photos, plus the drawings of Buzz and Fly Guy – can combine to provide early readers with a solid introduction to science in a way that will encourage them to continue learning as time goes on.

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