January 05, 2006


Scholastic Atlas of Earth. Editor: Johanne Champagne. Scholastic. $17.99.

Unexpected: 11 Mysterious Stories. Edited by Laura E. Williams. Scholastic. $5.99.

     The early part of a new year seems like a good time to choose directions.  In the case of books, that can mean choosing to start the year reading fiction or nonfiction.  Interestingly, no matter which way young readers choose, they can find something to enjoy from Scholastic, which offers both fictional and nonfictional books of consistently high quality.

     If you’d like to start the year by learning more about our planet, Scholastic Atlas of Earth makes a fine introduction.  Arranged in sections called “History of Earth,” “Inside Earth,” “Breathtaking Landscapes,” “Earth’s Fits of Anger,” and “The Environment,” this book gives basic and amply illustrated information on how life began and developed, how fossils are formed, how different climates affect life, the formation of mountains and caves, tectonic motion, volcanoes and earthquakes, and more – including the latest thinking on climate change, global warming, deforestation and other important ecological issues of the day.  This is not an in-depth work: the emphasis is as much on attractive presentation as on transmitting facts.  But it is a good start for learning the material, and each paragraph packs in a surprising amount of information.  For example, the brief section on the food chain – from plants to herbivores to carnivores to top predators to decomposers and back to plants – is nicely complemented by a box explaining that “each link in the food chain gets only 10% of the energy that was stored by the preceding link,” and what that means in terms of how plants and animals grow.  Bonus hands-on activities at the end can make the study of Earth even more enjoyable: young readers can easily make their own fossils or create mountains, using techniques that quickly duplicate, on a small scale, the tremendously slow and vast forces that constantly change the face of our planet.

     If you’d rather begin by reading fiction, one recent release worth considering is Unexpected.  The title fits with any new year – we are always sure to experience the unexpected! – but the subject matter is the timeless stuff of mysteries and shudders.  Some of the stories are scary precisely because they really could happen – such as Will Weaver’s “Marked for Death,” about a deer hunt gone horribly wrong.  Others couldn’t, but their twists and turns make them shuddery anyway – such as Laura E. Williams’ Poe-etically titled “The Telltale Croak.”  Still others have the characteristic blend of fright and humor for which their authors are well known, such as Bruce Coville’s abduction-by-trolls story, “The Troddler.”  The remaining eight tales – by Peter Lerangis, Gail Carson Levine, Norma Fox Mazer, Graham Salisbury, Margaret Peterson Haddix, Marion Dane Bauer, Dian Curtis Regan, and the team of Heidi E.Y. Stemple and Jane Yolen – are darksome in different ways.  This is a good book to read when early-year busy-ness makes it hard to find the time for a novel, since the stories are loosely connected by mood but otherwise quite independent (the preponderance of authors using triple names notwithstanding).  Of course, if the early part of the year is just too busy, it’s fine to put either or both of these books aside for a while.  Their levels of interest will keep quite nicely.

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