August 07, 2008


My Beach Book; My Shell Book. By Ellen Kirk. Collins. $5.99 each.

Extreme Coral Reef! Q&A. By Melissa Stewart. Collins. $6.99.

American Flag Q&A. By Sarah L. Thomson. Collins. $6.99.

      Sturdy beach-oriented board books for children up to age five, My Beach Book and My Shell Book combine simple, easy-to-understand text with wonderfully vivid photos. Created in collaboration with the Smithsonian Institution, these books are fun as summer pastimes, as goes-down-easily education, and as memory books that kids will enjoy during colder weather as they look back at a happy summer. My Beach Book includes such questions and answers as “What keeps crashing onto the beach? Waves!” – with a photo of a boy running along the edge of the ocean. And: “What crawls across the beach? A crab!” – showing the animal in a closer view than most kids will likely get. My Shell Book features shells that are far more perfect than any likely to be found on a beach used by humans. But shells that kids do find can always be compared with these. For example, “What is fan-shaped with stripes and ridges? A scallop shell!” – letting kids see whether the broken shells they are more likely to discover resemble the perfect specimen shown here. Or: “What has an oval shape and colored bands? A clam shell!” – and since these are sometimes found in near-perfect condition, a child may see one that really does resemble the one in the photo.

      For older kids, ages 5-8, the Smithsonian-Collins partnership has produced a different sort of ocean-related book. It is not quite as successful as the board books, and gets a (+++) rating – because it goes overboard in seeking to be hip, with the result that it looks overdone and seems to be trying too hard. Packed with fine photos and filled with fascinating facts, Extreme Coral Reef! Q&A seems to feel it must constantly do more for readers by referring them to Web sites, urging them to planet-aiding activities, and including an interview with a zoologist. Every element of the book is worthwhile, but the visual impression of the work is of something thrown together rather haphazardly, as if to toss out tons of information in multiple ways in the hope that some of it will stick to young readers’ brains. The information itself, though, is solid, explaining how coral reefs form, what different sorts of creatures are visible there at day and at night, and how some coral-reef residents help each other: clown fish, for example, protect themselves by hiding among anemone tentacles, and in return chase away some of the butterfly fish that feed on anemones. Incidentally, one oddity in the book is that the plural of “fish” is constantly given as “fishes,” which is not entirely wrong but sounds distinctly strange: “parrot fishes,” “clown fishes,” "butterfly fishes,” “other fishes know…”

      Away from the beach but still in the Smithsonian-Collins collaboration is American Flag Q&A, which has both the virtues and the irritations of the coral-reef book, is aimed at the same age range, and also gets a (+++) rating. Again, the quality of the information is sterling, but the presentation is somewhat tarnished. Here kids can learn flag terminology (“Fly—the side of the flag that is farthest from the flagstaff”); what flags the colonists flew during the American Revolution (ones with pine trees, rattlesnakes – symbols of independence – and even a “liberty” design); and why people wrongly believe that the Stars and Stripes was flown in battle (largely because of an error made in a famous painting). There is information here on the flag that inspired “The Star-Spangled Banner” and the one called “Old Glory,” on flags that fly in odd places (Mt. Everest, the Moon), and more – plenty of material to make the book attractive in and of itself. The various Web sites and other bonuses offered will be helpful for kids who need to do in-depth reports on the U.S. flag or simply want to study it in greater detail, but the book stands on its own quite well.

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