Nonfiction summer reading for kids

June 17, 2011

INTO THE UNKNOWN

How Great Explorers Found Their Way by Land, Sea and Air

By Stewart Ross

Illustrated by Stephen Biesty

Candlewick. $19.99. Ages 9-12

Spanning more than 2,000 years and hundreds of thousands of miles, this engaging guide to 14 breakthrough explorations offers armchair travel to a variety of different worlds. From Pytheas’ 4th-century B.C. Arctic voyage to a 1960 deep-sea ocean descent to the Apollo landing on the Moon, these journeys called for momentous engineering developments as well as plenty of courage and conviction. Author Stewart Ross and his collaborator, Stephen Biesty, the king of cross-sectional illustrations, convey the adventurers’ motivations as well as the geographical and logistical challenges involved in each quest. And there are cool cross-sections of everything from a caravansary during Marco Polo’s time to the equipment of an Everest mountaineer and an Apollo astronaut.

WE ARE AMERICA

A Tribute from the Heart

By Walter Dean Myers

Illustrated by Christopher Myers

Collins. $16.99. Ages 4-8

Opening with short essays by the book’s father-and-son collaborators, “We Are America” pays tribute to the variety of America as well as to its promise — in Christopher Myers’s words, “the question mark of it.” The images and text are vibrant, featuring paintings from Christopher Myers that evoke the sweep of history, provocative poetry from Walter Dean Myers, and pertinent quotes from such figures as Edward Johnson, a Puritan minister; Tecumseh, a Shawnee chief; and Abraham Lincoln. Touring our past from “before the ships came,” Walter Dean Myers finds beauty and valor in America’s contradictions while acknowledging a less-than-perfect union: “And from the tensions/From the struggle between conscience/And human frailty/Between the great hope of tomorrow/And the forever hunger of today/We have found our nation.”

QUEEN OF THE FALLS

By Chris Van Allsburg

Houghton Mifflin. $18.99. Ages 6-9

A departure from his usual fantastic fables, Van Allsburg’s latest picture book describes the absolutely true 1901 escapade of Annie Edson Taylor. The 62-year-old widowed teacher of etiquette decided to seize fame and fortune by going over Niagara Falls in a barrel. She designed the barrel, helped build it, and then hired a manager to help stir up excitement about her stunt. Van Allsburg delivers plenty of narrative tension and captivating perspectives as he tells of her dangerous and discombobulating ride over the falls. He also shows that though Taylor didn’t receive much cash or wide acclaim, she ultimately took satisfaction in having accomplished what she felt to be “the greatest feat ever performed.”

FAR FROM SHORE

Chronicles of an Open Ocean Voyage

By Sophie Webb

Houghton Mifflin. $17.99. Ages 9-12

An altogether different sort of water adventurer, naturalist Sophie Webb has studied penguins in Antarctica and seabirds around Alaska. In “Far From Shore,” she recounts a four-month journey in the Eastern Tropical Pacific Ocean that focused on imperiled populations of dolphins. She was assigned to “count the seabirds,” but her text and pictures range more widely, spotlighting the ship and its scientific equipment, gorgeous scenes of big skies and expanses of ocean, as well as, naturally, the wildlife she came across. She discusses a variety of species, not only birds and dolphins, and explains the science of how and why they are studied. Webb’s journal entries are pleasingly serene and balanced, even as she describes stormy weather, early morning work, and a downside to one of the bird species she’s studying: “Booby poop is fishy smelling, sticky, and almost impossible to wash out of hair or clothes.” An invaluable guide for budding naturalists — don’t leave shore without it.

Abby McGanney Nolan is a freelance writer and editor.

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