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April Books: Just in Time for Earth Day
by Meribeth C. Shank
If we are not in awe of the beauty in the world around us with its vast variety of life, it is long past time for us to learn about what we do not know. To quote Sylvia Earle, whose biography is included among the books this month, “You can’t care if you don’t know.” We must care, we must take care, if this spaceship planet we inhabit is to survive and thrive. Take this opportunity to read, learn, enjoy, and most important, act.
Energy Island: How One Community Harnessed the Wind and Changed Their World
by Allan Drummond. Farrar Straus & Giroux, $16.99, Ages 6–10
The island of Samso, “in the middle of Denmark,” and “in the middle of the sea,” is also the home of the Energy Academy, a learning center “where kids and grownups from all over the world come to learn . . . and to talk about new ideas for creating, sharing, and saving energy.” It’s also where the island’s people each have an energy independence story to tell.
Author-illustrator Drummond shares the story of how the people on the windy island of Samso, who saw themselves as ordinary, worked together as a community. It started with the Danish Ministry of Environment and Energy, which “chose Samso as the ideal place to become independent of nonrenewable energy.” A person who saw himself as ordinary, teacher Soren Hermansen was chosen to lead the project.
He began by talking with his students in class. They were very excited, but the adults on the island were less so. There were local meetings, and people came to agree it was a good idea, but nothing changed. Then one small and one large wind turbine project began, but nothing else happened until a dark winter night when all the electricity went out, EXCEPT the wind turbine in Brian Kjaer’s house. Now there are farms with solar panels, a biomass furnace, and electric cars powered by windmills, to mention a few.
The cartoon-like illustrations are colorful and energetic, to accompany the fast moving, engaging text, and occasional sidebars of additional information are sprinkled throughout to enhance the content. Plus an Author’s Note is included at the end.
The Family Tree by David McPhail. Henry Holt, $16.99, Ages 5–8
Using his familiar and well-loved warm watercolors and ink, author-illustrator McPhail supplies readers with a sense of the past and the passing of time, in this story of one family’s generation-to-generation life on the land. McPhail’s trademark style begins the story in pictures on the title page, where readers see a covered wagon pulled by oxen coming through a deep forest, even before the words commence; “Many years ago, a young man came to the wilderness to start a new life.”
Despite the need to fell trees for making boards and beams, planks, posts and rails to build his house, barns, and fences, he chooses one tree for shade from the hot summer sun and shelter from chilly winter winds. And this is the tree that appears on every page following, accompanying the wife’s arrival, the child’s coming, neighbors, traffic, even a gravestone to mark the changes and passing of time.
It is, however, the great-great-grandson’s friendship that ultimately protects his family’s cherished swinging tree, when the workers come with ax and chainsaw. Needing assistance to prevent the tree’s destruction, the boy and his dog are soon surrounded by bear, moose, raccoon, and wolf, summoned by a flock of birds, roosting in the beloved tree. The workers confer and devise a new plan for widening the road “that would work for everyone.”
With a seamless merging of text and pictures, McPhail has created a successful tale, blending family life with environmental protection.
Life in the Ocean: The Story of Oceanographer Sylvia Earle by Claire A. Nivola. Farrar Straus & Giroux, $17.99, Ages 6–9
Award winning author-illustrator Nivola has once again skillfully designed a biography for young children that captures the inspiring life of a world-renowned environmentalist whose training and experience as a scientist draw attention to an aspect of our world currently under assault largely due to ignorance and carelessness. As a young child, Sylvia Earle “investigated” (as her mother called it) the pond, a fallen tree, and explored the outdoors around her rural New Jersey home. Until the family moved, when she was twelve, to a new home north of Clearwater, on Florida’s Gulf coast.
Sylvia’s curiosity took her not only snorkeling into the grassy water to “investigate” again, but into scuba diving, “walking on the ocean floor in an aqua suit that looked like a space suit,” “descending 3,000 feet” into the Pacific Ocean in a “spherical bubble” she helped design, and “13,000 feet underwater in a Japanese submersible” to see the ocean’s wonders – these being only a few examples of her intrepid explorations!
The pages about the whales and Sylvia’s experiences observing them and being observed by them are akin to the interactions between Jane Goodall and the chimpanzees with whom she has lived and worked for decades. Accompanied by watercolor paintings in rich, bright colors, the illustrations give evidence of the astonishing variety of undersea life. Especially on the whale pages, the graceful, dance-like movements of these largest of the world’s creatures are also rendered in careful proportion to a tiny image of Sylvia herself to assist readers’ understanding of the ocean’s immensity and humans’ small part of the diversity of life on earth and in its waters.
This lovely nonfiction book is also a well-written, well-told story of one woman’s pursuit of her passion. Back matter includes an Author’s Note and Selected Bibliography.
Meribeth Shank works in the Media Center at Miami Country Day School, an independent school in Miami Shores, Florida, teaches classes on Writing Books for Children, and earned her MFA in Writing for children from Vermont College. You can also find her on the web: http://meribeths.blogspot.com