Glass Shark

If Sharks Disappeared by Lily Williams. Roaring Brook Press, 2017. 9781626724136.

It says something about the power of art and storytelling (and a lot about Lily Williams) that she can make a complex idea like a trophic cascade (the drastic changes in an ecosystem resulting from the disappearance of an apex predator) clear and compelling to a young audience. As she shows, even though sharks can seem scary, they are absolutely necessary to the health of the oceans. They keep their prey populations in balance which in turn keeps their food sources in balance, and so on and so on, which extends to populations on land as well. The book ends with steps ordinary people can take to protect sharks that are vulnerable to extinction, from buying sustainably caught fish to creating their own shark art.

Croooooow! (Wise cracker)

Crow Smarts: Inside the Brain of the World’s Brightest Bird by Pamela S. Turner, photographs by Andy Comins, art by Guido de Filippo. Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 2016. 9780544416192.

Crows are so cool! Crow Smarts follows current research in the field on New Caledonian crows and puts it in context with other animal behavior, theories about the brain, and the complexities of animal use of tools. There’s also the funny story of a kid crow learning from its parent how to use a stick to get a juicy grub, as observed by the author. The book is entertaining, engaging, and I learned a lot.

I had heard bits and pieces about crow intelligence, but I had sort of lumped all of them together. Turns out New Caledonian crows are unique even among their clever relatives: they not only use tools, they design tools by carefully snipping twigs and pandan leaves and are able to solve multi-part puzzles like using one tool to retrieve another tool to grab a treat, and bending a piece of wire into a hook to pull up a tiny bucket. (There’s a pretty amusing chapter on some captive New Caledonian crows in a behavior lab in Oxford going through different tests of reasoning and problem solving. They are more successful than human children!) New Caledonian crows have straighter beaks (so it’s easier to hold tools), forward-facing eyes (better depth perception for tools), and no competition for the grubs that burrow in tree trunks (yum).

There’s great information on whether or not big brains are evolutionarily advantageous (only sometimes, as they require a lot of extra food), the overlap in brain processing for tool use and language use, and how both humans and crows live socially and are flexible in what they eat, which encourages cooperation and may have evolved at the same time as tool use.

Every Scientists in the Field book includes the background of a scientist that will broaden your idea of who can go into science fields. This one has a scientist who didn’t start college until he was 30, one who is also an artist and sketches in his field notes (he contributed illustrations for the book), and a local New Caledonian grandfather who captures and re-releases the crows, and is learning about their behavior along with the scientists.

Let’s cheat a bit, and flip to the end of the book: Turner’s bibliography is a long list of articles from peer-reviewed science journals and not, as is the case in many science books for kids, a list of other science books for kids.

Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Cow

Prudence the Part-Time Cow by Jody Jensen Shaffer, illustrated by Stephanie Laberis. Godwin Books, 2017. 9781627796156.

Prudence the cow spends hours being a scientist, an architect, and an engineer by observing her world and building new things. The rest of the cows are unimpressed, and even say she’s not really one of the herd because she can’t act like a normal cow. Prudence is heartbroken, but her efforts to fit in are quickly overcome by her desire to calculate wind speed and invent a sunhat to supplement their shade tree. The resolution is a lovely bit of problem-solving by Prudence showing the benefits of science by someone who knows a community’s needs. (That’s a message that I hope sticks with kids who have been told that they don’t belong in scientific fields.)

Hacks and Snacks

Edible Inventions: Cooking Hacks and Yummy Recipes You Can Build, Mix, Bake, and Grow by Kathy Ceceri. Maker Media, 2016. 9781680452051.

Like I said last time, maker books cover a lot of territory, from the sort of safe educational activities you used to learn about on PBS science shows to building a robot that spits fire. Edible Inventions spans a fun segment of the usual danger and futuristic-ness spectrums. You can build a hydraulic Lego 3D printer (a sort of food-based pen-plotter that can draw on a graham cracker with frosting), do your own molecular gastronomy by making gelatin dots and agar noodles, freeze a sorbet with dry ice, and make fancy fermented ketchup from scratch. There are also the projects I remember fondly from my own youth: solar ovens, homemade granola, home-fermented yogurt, and a tin-can cooker. Which is not to say that these golden oldies haven’t been updated! The section on that old standard, growing a tree from an avocado pit, also has instructions for growing new plants from the root ends of leeks, garlic, and romaine lettuce. There’s enough here to not only appeal to kids but to challenge them as well, plus chapter bibliographies in case they want to go further.

The Big Book of Surgery

The Sacred Heart: An Atlas of the Body Seen Through Invasive Surgery by Max Aguilera-Hellweg. Bulfinch Press, 1997. 9780821223772. 128pp.

Gene: This is a Wow, but it’s also potentially an Ick. What I love about sharing books with you is that I’m digging into books that I’ve kept for a long time and asking myself why I’ve kept them, and if they’re worth hanging on to. This book freaks me out.
Sarah: Ugh!
G: It’s photographs of surgery. I’ve looked at it so many times, but so quickly, that I didn’t realize before the other day that a lot of the pictures are of the same surgery. I never read the essay before (I did a little this time) because the photos take over my brain and then I have to stop looking at it. Continue reading “The Big Book of Surgery”

First Ones to Go Viral

Virus by Marilyn J. Roossinck. Princeton University Press, 2016. 9780691166964.

virusThe cover says “an illustrated guide to 101 incredible microbes,” which is why I picked it up. Each two-page profile of a virus includes: 1) a large colorized photograph of the virus, 2) a diagram of its anatomy, 3) a thumbnail guide to how it’s classified and what it does, and 4) a paragraph on its discovery and significance. There are also sections on virus basics like reproduction and immunity.

Each page I flipped to was fascinating and strange and beautiful. I liked it even though some of the science was beyond me. You can learn a lot about viruses or just ogle the crazy pictures: either way, this book is cool.

More Informative Than Another Ark Story

Grandmother Fish: A Child’s First Book of Evolution by Jonathan Tweet, illustrated by Karen Lewis. Feiwel and Friends, 2015. 9781250113238.

grandmotherfishWhat appears at first to be a sweet picture book about creatures in humans’ evolutionary tree, complete with actions and noises for a children to imitate (chomp like grandmother fish, squeak like grandmother mammal), is actually an incredibly well-made and researched introduction to evolution for kids. (The chomping represents the development of hinged jaws, the squeaking is making vocalizations with the throat.  These and other ideas are explained in more detail at the back of the book.)

This was the result of 15 years of work and a Kickstarter campaign inspired by the author’s need for a book to explain evolution to his daughter. His care and effort shows.