Tuesday, October 29, 2013

Nonfiction and Biography Book Reviews





Kerley, Barbara. 2008. What to do about Alice? Ill. By Edwin Fotheringham. New York: Scholastic Press. ISBN 978-0-439-92231-9

Summary:
Author of several award-winning books, Barbara Kerley tackles the life of one of our nation’s most irrepressible “first children” in this picture book biography of Alice Roosevelt Longworth, daughter of Theodore Roosevelt.  The subtitle of the book is “How Alice Roosevelt broke the rules, charmed the world and drove her father Teddy crazy!”

Critical Analysis:
Eminently readable, this extra-large picture book biography gives the reader a glimpse of life in the White House in the early 1900’s through the eyes of the energetic and mischievous Alice Roosevelt.  Kerley’s writing is engaging in telling the story of the challenge President Roosevelt had in raising such a rambunctious daughter in an era where children, and females, were better “seen and not heard.”  Beginning with a humorous understatement about Alice (“Theodore Roosevelt had a small problem”), the book goes on to highlight a few of Teddy’s adventures, such as herding cattle in the Dakota Badlands, leading the Rough Riders, bagging grizzly bears, capturing outlaws and his highly publicized political career. (And he wondered where Alice got her sense of adventure)?

 The rest of the book is taken up with enthusiastically written snapshots of Alice’s life, from her unconventional education, which consisted of “being let loose” in her father’s library, her struggle with wearing braces on her legs (which didn’t slow her down one bit), to roaming the streets of Washington and joining an all-boys’ club.  As she grew older, she assumed the role of goodwill ambassador for her father, greeting visitors to the White House with a pet snake named Emily Spinach, and getting up to many hijinks on trips outside the United States.  Teddy is quoted saying to a friend, “I can be president of the United States, or I can control Alice.  I cannot possibly do both!” 

 Though she was the bane of the president’s existence, the American public adored Alice; she had a song written about her, “Alice” became a popular baby name and she even had a color named after her – “Alice Blue.”  The book examines her life from her childhood through her marriage to congressman Nicholas Longworth, but even as an adult, Alice “ate up the world” by dancing until all hours, playing poker, betting on horses and racing her car.  Although she was not even close to being politically correct, most historians agree that Alice’s celebrity helped her father’s career.  

The digital illustrations by Edwin Fotheringham, in his picture book debut, provide an excellent backdrop for the text, evoking the historical era with appropriate clothing styles and other fine details. With muted colors, yet patriotic red, white and blue touches throughout, the illustrator creates visually captivating caricature drawings of Teddy, Alice and others in the book.  The images of Alice usually reflect movement of her running, jumping and skipping, symbolizing her energetic life.  One small detail delights: the opening and closing pictures show Alice carrying a spoon, reflecting Alice’s hunger for life and her love of “eating up the world.”

Kerley’s sources for the quotes in the book and the history presented are not easily found, being rather hidden inside the back cover of the book in small print, but they do show she used several respected biographies for her information.  The author also provides additional historical information in an author’s note in the back of the book that assists the reader in understanding the historical context.

Awards:

Reviews:
“It’s hard to imagine a picture book biography that could better suit its subject than this high-energy volume serves young Alice Roosevelt.” – Publisher’s Weekly

“Peeking behind the White House door at its child residents is always a kid-pleasing enterprise, and stories of spirited Alice may set listeners to scanning the current political horizon for equally fascinating presidential offspring.” - The Bulletin of the Center for Children's Books

Personal Response:
I loved the story of Alice Roosevelt, and the way the illustrator made the story come alive.  It led me to do some more research on Alice, finding the apparently well-known quote she made: “If you haven’t got anything good to say about anyone, come sit by me!”

Connections:
Kerley’s picture book could be used in conjunction with a similar book titled Mind your Manners, Alice Roosevelt, by Leslie Kimmelman, which contains a fictionalized account of the life of the Roosevelts, highlighting some of Alice’s antics.  It could also be used as part of a history unit on U.S. Presidents, life in the early 1900s, or the Women’s Rights Movement. 

References
Children’s Literature Comprehensive Database. N.d. What to do About Alice? http://ezproxy.twu.edu:4529/index.php/bookdetail/index?page=1&pos=2&isbn=9780439922319 (accessed October 22, 2013).


 

Jenkins, Steve and Robin Page. 2010. How to Clean a Hippopotamus: a Look at Unusual Animal Partnerships. New York: Houghton Mifflin Books for Children. ISBN 978-0-547-24515-7

Summary:
Husband and wife award-winning team, Steve Jenkins and Robin Page, took their interest in animal symbiosis, specifically mutualism – a relationship between animals that is mutually beneficial – and turned it into an inventive picture book full of fun and fascinating scientific facts about the “curious biology” of different animals and organisms helping each other in the wild. 

Critical Analysis:
Who knew that Nile crocodiles have their own live toothpicks in the Egyptian plover bird? Or that the cleaner wrasse fish acts as a dentist office/way station for all sorts of sea creatures? These and other interesting facts are explored in this intriguing picture book about animal symbiosis.  Written in a factual, yet never dry, style, the authors present a number of different animal pairs that help each other in a mutually beneficial manner (called “mutualism”). 

Some animals graze together in Africa, using their separate specific skills of sight, hearing and smell to warn of predators.  Many other animals have a symbiotic relationship wherein one will clean the other, the former getting a food source, and the latter getting relief from skin discomfort.  The coyote and badger, usually lone hunters, have discovered that together they can be more successful catching the wily prairie dog.  One of the most fascinating pairs is the Black Tree ant and its enemy the Rufous woodpecker.  They normally are at war; but in the spring, the ants allow the woodpecker to make a nest out of the ants’ home for its eggs and yet don’t attack the chicks, who act as a deterrent to predators until they are ready to leave the nest.  After that, they “become enemies once again.”

The book’s layout is similar to a graphic novel, with horizontal panels of drawings and captions of text, presenting a clear, but not overwhelming, sequence of information.  The illustrations are similar to the collage style of Eric Carle, and provide interesting visual texture to the book.  Of note are the eyes of the various animals which seem to jump off the page with life-like appeal.
The authors end the book on a sweet note by discussing the symbiosis between dogs and humans.  Though in the past, dogs have helped humans as workers, hunters, herders and guides in return for food and care, the most important role of dogs today is companion.  “Dogs keep us company and cheer us up when we are sad.  They are loyal and affectionate.”  

The last pages of the book offer a section on “more about symbiosis,” specific information on size, habitat and diet of the animals highlighted in the book and a reference to other books “to learn more about animal symbiosis.”  The authors do not indicate specifically where they obtained all their facts, which detracts from determining the accuracy of an informational book.  There are also no page numbers, which is unusual.  Otherwise, these author/illustrators have done an excellent job of presenting a scientific topic in a way that creates curiosity and awe.

 Awards:
(Best Books):
Booklist Top 10 Sci-Tech Books for Youth, 2010 ; American Library Association
Choices, 2011 ; Cooperative Children's Book Center
John Burroughs List of Nature Books for Young Readers ; John Burroughs Association
Notable Children's Books, 2011 ; ALSC American Library Association
Outstanding Science Trade Books for Students K-12, 2011 ; National Science Teachers Association
Reviews:
 “Close ups, aerial views, and vignettes of animals realistically rendered in Jenkins's trademark collage have a cinematic quality.” – Publisher’s Weekly

“The format is entertaining, but as always, the authors’ attention to scientific facts is serious, and their lucid explanations avoid any suggestion that these arrangements are cozy pairings between interspecies BFFs: “Animals . . . remain in these relationships only because the partnership somehow helps them survive.” – Booklist

Personal Response:
I found this book fascinating and rather miraculous that certain animals have developed such relationships.  The topic of symbiosis was new to me, and the book made me want to explore it further.

Connections: 
The obvious use of this book is in a scientific unit on symbiosis in animals.  Other books available on this topic are: Weird Friends: Unlikely Allies in the Animal Kingdom by Jose Aruego and Ariane Dewey and a series of books about animals working together by Martha Rustad (Zebras and Oxpeckers Work Together, for example).  Children could take one pair of animals and do further research on their mutualism to present to the class or in a report.  It would also be a great book to read in a story time with a theme of how people and animals help each other.

References

Amazon.com. n.d. “Animal Symbiosis.” http://www.amazon.com/s/ref=nb_sb_noss?url=search-alias%3Dstripbooks&field-keywords=animal%20symbiosis (accessed October 23, 2013). 

Children’s Literature Comprehensive Database. n.d  How to Clean a Hippotamus. http://ezproxy.twu.edu:4529/index.php/bookdetail/index?page=1&pos=0&isbn=9780547245157 (accessed October 23, 2013).

 

 

Montgomery, Sy. 2010. Kakapo Rescue: Saving the World’s Strangest Parrot. New York: Houghton-Mifflin Harcourt. ISBN 978-0-618-49417-0

Summary:
 Sy Montgomery, an acclaimed writer of informational books, adds to her collection with this Siebert Award winner about an endangered flightless parrot found only on a small island in New Zealand.  The author and photographer, Nic Bishop, spent 10 days on Codfish Island with a group of volunteers who are passionately involved in caring for, and hopefully increasing the numbers of, the Kakapo parrot.  Sy Montgomery’s book tells a poignant tale of the attempt to save a species on the brink of extinction, and shares her experiences about the triumphs, and sometimes tragedies, found in this endeavor.

Critical Analysis:
The most important criteria in an informational book is  accuracy, and it is hard to get more accurate than experiencing the facts of one’s topic firsthand the way Sy Montgomery does in this award-winning Science in the Field book.  Montgomery has been chased by angry gorillas, bitten by bats, swum with piranhas and hunted by tigers in search of information for some of her other books.  In this one, she travels with photographer Nic Bishop to a tiny island in New Zealand to better understand the plight of the Kakapo parrot.  With less than 90 of these birds left in the world, all  located on Codfish Island, the author spends a great deal of time explaining the Kakapo’s history, how it has come so close to extinction, and the efforts involved to preserve the species. 

 Nic Bishop’s beautiful photographs accompany each page to capture their journey: close-ups of the Kakapo, other wildlife and the various volunteers; colorful sunsets and sunrises; stunning views of the vast ocean surrounding the island and the deep, dense forests hidden inside. Using sensory imagery the author provides vivid descriptions of the flora and fauna of the area, the work of the volunteers and the emotions experienced by all who come into contact with this funny, colorful and curious parrot.

The book tells of the Kakapo species in general, but also of a specific parrot, Lisa, and her just-hatched chick in such a way that the reader cannot help to become avidly involved in the story.  There is excitement, mystery, comedy and yes, even, tragedy as this story pulls in the reader, giving credence to why Sy Montgomery has won so many awards for her outstanding writing.  Figurative language is prominent in her writing style:  similes and metaphors, such as “each Kakapo is like…a Hope Diamond…a treasure of unsurpassed rarity and value;" onomatopoeia in the “booms and chings” of the mating male Kakapo, which sound “like the chime of a cash register;” and alliteration such as the “brilliant blue and breezy day.” 
The reference aids in the book include captions to each picture, a glossary of terms, a Kakapo Recovery website and a selected bibliography of additional sources that provided background for the book, though most research was done in the field.

Awards:
 SB&F Prize for Excellence in Science, 2011 Finalist Middle Grades Science Books

Reviews:
“Montgomery's delight in her subject is contagious, and throughout her enthusiastic text, she nimbly blends scientific and historical facts with immediate, sensory descriptions of fieldwork.” – Booklist

“Bishop's lushly beautiful photographs help readers explore the island's trees, ferns, and mosses as well as other birds and wildlife.” Children’s Literature

Personal Response:
I fell in love with the Kakapo parrot in Sy Montgomery’s book, especially with the interactions that the volunteers had with a few of the bolder birds.  It is sad that so few of them exist, but it is a great testament to conservationism that some people are so passionate about saving a species that man, himself, caused to come so close to extinction.

Connections:
Sy Montgomery’s website, www.symontgomery.com, has some wonderful resources that can be used by teachers as curriculum aids for this book.  Subjects of math, history, science, English language arts and social studies can all be explored with Kakapo Rescue.  Units on other endangered animals could also be explored.  This book would not be useful in a story time at a library due to its length, but could be recommended through reader’s advisory for those interested in animals and conservation.


References
Children’s Literature Comprehensive Database. N.d. Kakapo Rescue. http://ezproxy.twu.edu:4529/index.php/bookdetail/index?page=1&pos=0&isbn=9780618494170 (accessed October 24, 2013).



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