March 24, 2016


A Tree Is a Plant. By Clyde Robert Bulla. Illustrated by Stacey Schuett. Harper. $6.99.

Sunshine Makes the Seasons. By Franklyn M. Branley. Illustrated by Michael Rex. Harper. $6.99.

Earthquakes. By Franklyn M. Branley. Illustrated by Megan Lloyd. Harper. $6.99.

Down, Down, Down: A Journey to the Bottom of the Sea. By Steve Jenkins. Houghton Mifflin Harcourt. $7.99.

     A well-designed informational sequence that can easily serve as a classroom teaching tool as well as one to use at home, the “Let’s Read and Find Out” science series offers well-presented, clearly illustrated looks at specific science topics for preschool and kindergarten (Level 1) and for the primary grades (Level 2). New editions of three books in the series show just how well the material and its presentation have held up over the years. Clyde Robert Bulla’s Level 1 A Tree Is a Plant dates back to 1960; Stacey Schuett’s illustrations date to 2001. The book focuses on apple trees after introducing the basic concept of a tree by showing and labeling several types. Bulla explains, and Schuett shows, how a seed sprouts and eventually becomes a tiny plant that, over years, grows into a tree – one that, in the case of apple trees, produces attractive, short-lived blossoms and, later in the year, the familiar fruit. A storm scene is used to illustrate the functions of roots: “Roots hold the tree in the ground. Roots keep the tree from falling when the wind blows. Roots keep the rain from washing the tree out of the ground.” And of course roots transport water from the ground into the tree, part of a life cycle in which “leaves make food from water and air. They make food when the sun shines.” A fully grown apple tree is seen in all four seasons, with Schuett’s pleasant illustrations complementing Bulla’s question to young readers about when they like an apple tree best. Further information, and a simple experiment that kids can do to find out what happens to water in a tree, end the book on an overtly educational note that goes nicely with the earlier descriptive material.

     Sunshine Makes the Seasons and Earthquakes are Level 2 books written by Franklyn M. Branley, the first dating to 1974 and the second to 1990. Both books’ illustrations originally appeared in 2005. The title of Sunshine Makes the Seasons is a bit misleading, since it is Earth’s axial tilt that creates seasons – although without the sun, there would be no seasons to create. The book itself actually makes it clear why there are seasons and what both the sun and Earth have to do with them. Not a narrative but an extended science experiment, Sunshine Makes the Seasons explains how to use an orange with a pencil stuck through it, together with a flashlight, to simulate how Earth is lit by the sun and travels around it, and how seasons occur based on where people live on our world. The text is quite straightforward, and there is little amusing or narratively involving here, although the boy and girl who conduct the experiment are pleasant-looking enough and the boy comments several times about getting dizzy as he keeps the flashlight shining on the orange while the girl walks around him to simulate the Earth going around the sun. Michael Rex’s illustrations are nothing special, but they are clear, and they show just how to do the “seasons” experiment and what results to expect to obtain. Earthquakes, in contrast, is a narrative and descriptive book, explaining how quakes occur, where they happen most often, and what damage they can do – using several examples, including updates since the book was originally written (the 2004 Indian Ocean quake and tsunami is mentioned, for example). There is one simple experiment here, explaining seismic waves by showing how waves in general work, and there are some specific warnings, too, because “it is important to know what to do in case of an earthquake.” However, Megan Lloyd’s mostly forthright illustrations fall short when it comes to the advice section, since the three children pictured are smiling and do not seem the slightest bit scared or worried. Of course, the objective here is more to inform than to frighten, but after learning of all the destruction for which earthquakes are responsible, young readers may wonder why the children pictured are not more fearful. The reality is that all the “Let’s Read and Find Out” science books are intended as basic introductions to their topics, giving guides to further information or suggested additional learning at the end – they are scarcely planned as in-depth presentations of their topics. Written and illustrated simply, they well serve their purpose of helping kids understand some scientific basics about which they can learn considerably more elsewhere.

     Also aimed at young readers, but presented in a more strongly visual format and with highly intriguing facts, Steve Jenkins’ Down, Down, Down was originally published in 2009 and is now available in paperback. Jenkins starts with a view of Earth from space, then drops to a level just above the Pacific Ocean, and then – after showing what sorts of sea creatures live near the surface (and even move into the air occasionally), he begins the long journey to the deepest spot in the ocean, almost 36,000 feet down.  Near the surface, where “the water is warm and brightly lit by the sun,” we encounter familiar-looking sea creatures, accurately portrayed in Jenkins’ drawings. By a depth of 33 feet, sunlight is fading and water pressure increasing, but still the dwellers are familiar: tuna, sailfish, sea turtles and more. At 10 times that depth, though, light is far less and water pressure is 10 times what it is at the surface; here, soft, fluid-filled animals such as jellyfish thrive. Go down twice again as far, to 660 feet, and “there is not enough light for plants to survive – only animals live below this depth,” a surprising revelation for anyone who thinks of plant and animal life as inextricably intertwined. And now the denizens get stranger – this is where the goblin shark and snipe eel are found.  And down, down, down readers go, encountering ever-weirder creatures as the waters become darker and the pressure vastly more intense. “Nine out of ten animals that live below the sunlit layer of the ocean are bioluminescent,” Jenkins explains – a fascinating statistic, and just one of many here. The deeper we explore, the more peculiar sea life is: the huge-mouthed pelican eel, the deep-sea jellyfish that resembles a flying saucer, the female hairy angler with a glowing lure at the end of a stalk that sticks out from her head, the small but huge-toothed loosejaw stoplight fish, and many others. Then we reach the weird layer of ooze 13,000 feet below the surface, called the abyssal plain – as strange a place as any imagined planet in science fiction, yet it is right here on Earth. And there is still more, for even in the deepest part of the ocean, an area still virtually unexplored, there is known to be life. This is a truly extraordinary tale, scientifically accurate yet as fascinating as a work of fiction, and with five pages of additional details on the animals portrayed in the book at the end – for young readers captivated by this amazing visit to the world far beneath our feet.

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