March 15, 2018


What Makes a Blizzard? By Kathleen Weidner Zoehfeld. Illustrated by Maddie Frost. Harper. $17.99.

Icebergs & Glaciers. By Seymour Simon. Harper. $17.99.

     Both these books could be called “Let’s Read and Find Out” science, but in fact only the one by Kathleen Weidner Zoehfeld is included in that series, where it is a Level 2 book intended for ages 4-8. Zoehfeld introduces the topic of blizzards by going back to a still-notorious 19th-century storm, the blizzard of January 12, 1888. She uses it as an example of this extreme form of winter storm partly because it was nicknamed “The Schoolchildren’s Blizzard,” so called because it struck the U.S. Midwest while kids were in school, reducing visibility to almost zero, so “children trying to walk home from school became hopelessly lost.” Most teachers kept schoolkids in their one-room schoolhouses, and the few exceptions were usually fatal – the blizzard claimed 235 lives, although Zoehfeld does not mention this. (Nor does she mention that this is not the Great Blizzard of 1888, which hit the U.S. East Coast later in the same winter.) After giving 21st-century children a small taste of what the Schoolchildren’s Blizzard was like, Zoehfeld gets to a formal definition of this type of storm: it must have winds of at least 35 miles per hour that last at least three hours, with enough snow in the wind to cause a whiteout – which means visibility of one-quarter mile or less. Zoehfeld – aided by illustrations by the appropriately named Maddie Frost – explains how the collision of warm and cold air creates storms, and why such storms are especially common and violent in the U.S. Midwest. Zoehfeld gets into the basics of the water cycle, how snow is formed, how weather was predicted in the past and how it is predicted today, and more. She also gives more-modern references to blizzards to supplement the story of the Schoolchildren’s Blizzard of 1888 – for instance, she talks briefly about the 1977 blizzard in Buffalo, New York, where snowdrifts were higher than zoo fences and some reindeer escaped by simply walking away. Zoehfeld ends by bringing the matter of blizzards and other winter weather into modern times, explaining the differences between a “watch” and a “warning” when a storm is coming, suggesting ways to be prepared before bad weather hits, and reminding young readers – to avoid frightening them too much – that “eventually the wind will stop” and cleanup will begin, and there will be chances for play in the snow the storm leaves behind. A factually accurate book that will be easy for most children in the target age range to read and understand, What Makes a Blizzard? can be useful both in classrooms and at home during winter days when school is closed because of bad weather, if not necessarily blizzards.

     Seymour Simon’s Icebergs & Glaciers, originally published in 1987 and now available in a new, updated edition, is fact-packed as well, and it is far more attractive to look at than What Makes a Blizzard? The reason is that, as usual in Simon’s books, the visual material is in the form of photos rather than illustrations. And what photos these are! Unusually for a Simon book, this one has not a single picture of a human being in it – and no photos of animals, either. So the photographs of glaciers, ice fields and water take on a kind of abstract beauty that turns the book very nearly into a work of art. But there are serious issues for humans in the forms of ice that Simon describes: the sole picture of anything human-created here shows a cruise ship that hit submerged ice off Antarctica in 2007, capsized and sank (the photo shows the Explorer listing strongly to starboard before going under). Simon does his usual excellent job of explaining: he discusses how glaciers form, how they move, and how icebergs are created when pieces of a glacier “calve” or split off. One photo appears to show a huge ice shelf – that is, a monumental ice sheet at the point where it meets the sea – stretching as far as the eye can see. It is an especially dramatic picture that becomes even more so when young readers (the book is intended for ages 6-10) read that this is not an ice shelf after all: it is an iceberg that broke off from an even larger iceberg that in turn broke away from an Antarctic ice shelf. The scale of the ice masses described by Simon is so vast that even his usual attempts to offer comparisons with more-familiar items falter – it is impossible to grasp that the Antarctic ice sheet is more than 15,000 feet thick, and not much easier to visualize what it means that this is “about the height of ten Empire State Buildings stacked one atop another.” Nevertheless, Simon makes a concerted effort to help young readers understand glaciers and icebergs, an attempt that includes showing “the ways that the land was changed by the glaciers” that receded after the last Ice Age some 10,000 years ago. And he discusses the possible effects of “melting ice due to climate change [that] could raise global sea levels almost two feet by the end of this century” – a jumping-off point, one among many here, for young readers to learn more about this topic and discuss it further, whether in a classroom setting or elsewhere.

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