June 19, 2014


Scholastic “Discover More”: Ancient Egypt. By Penelope Arlon. Scholastic. $12.99.

Scholastic “Discover More”: Birds. By Penelope Arlon and Tory Gordon-Harris. Scholastic. $7.99.

Magic Tree House #52: Soccer on Sunday. By Mary Pope Osborne. Illustrated by Sal Murdocca. Random House. $12.99.

Magic Tree House Fact Tracker (#29): Soccer. By Mary Pope Osborne and Natalie Pope Bryce. Illustrated by Sal Murdocca. Random House. $5.99.

     The Scholastic "Discover More" series is now several series, including one “for confident readers” and one “for brand-new readers.” The books look somewhat different, depending on their target readership, but their basic approach is the same: a highly visual handling of information, with text limited to a few paragraphs per page, most of them in the form of captions or brief introductory material. Ancient Egypt is for older readers, Birds for younger ones, and both are packed with intriguing bits of information on their subjects. In Ancient Egypt, for example, readers get to see a wooden toe found on a mummy – the earliest prosthetic device ever discovered, and evidence of how advanced the ancient Egyptians were in medicine. There is information on some of the 2,000 Egyptian gods and goddesses, a well-laid-out timeline of ancient Egypt (including the information that Cleopatra, actually Cleopatra VII, was its last ruler), material about everyday life, a look at some of the pharaohs, even information on “how to make a mummy.” Ancient Egyptian artifacts abound, so the illustrations for this book are authentic and fascinating, from war weapons to paintings to jewelry, mirrors and hairpins. An interview with an Egyptologist completes this thoroughly involving look at a major civilization.

     Birds is simpler but no less informative. From a definition of a bird as an animal with feathers, wings, two feet and a beak, to a simple explanation of how most birds are able to fly and a look at some that cannot, to close-up looks at various beaks (showing how the shape of each makes it easier for birds with that beak to eat their particular foods), the book is colorful, informative and clear. In addition to expected focuses – on nests, for example – there are some unexpected ones: on birds’ feet and on their special senses (storks can feel fish brushing past their beaks; kingfishers can see underwater, which helps them catch fish). The looks at birds with the longest beak (the Australian pelican) and longest feather (the male crested argus) are fascinating, as are the short notes on the heaviest flying animal (the kori bustard) and the smallest bird (the bee hummingbird, which really is about the size of a bee). Kids who enjoy Birds and other "Discover More" books at its level will soon move on to Ancient Egypt and others at that level – and hopefully be inspired to get information in even more detail afterwards.

     The information in the Magic Tree House series comes in two flavors: direct and incidental. The incidental material is in the main books, which are rather silly, lightly plotted “missions” that Jack and Annie undertake on behalf of Merlin (yes, that Merllin); the current mission series, which is completed in Soccer on Sunday, is to bring Merlin the four secrets of greatness, which for some reason he cannot find or figure out on his own. No matter – logic is scarcely a primary element of these easy-to-read (+++) adventure stories, which move through time and space with abandon. This one does not move very far through time – only to 1970, where its focus is soccer superstar Pelé. Actually, Jack and Annie spend most of the book interacting with a young soccer player who idolizes Pelé, rather than with the star himself; but yes, the intrepid explorers do find what Merlin wants, and yes, they have enough of an adventure to keep fans of this long-running series interested. The bits of soccer information in Soccer on Sunday are less concentrated than those in the accompanying Fact Tracker: Soccer, which is entirely factual and includes photos as well as illustrations. The book includes profiles not only of Pelé but also of Abby Wambach, David Beckham, Mia Hamm and other players, and it also offers some history of the game and its predecessors – plus a diagram of a soccer pitch, a list of soccer skills, and more. Like the books they accompany, the Fact Tracker volumes are quite formulaic and get a (+++) rating; but they are to be commended for giving kids who become interested in the subjects underlying the adventure books a chance to find out a little bit more about the ways in which those books touch on reality.

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