Whether they're about trekking to gorilla habitats in Africa, surviving in Antarctica's frigid landscape, or preserving buffalo from hunters in modern-day New Mexico, these true-life tales of adventure and courage offer a marvelous literary antidote to the Pokemon-saturated consciousness of many young readers.
This holiday season, publishers have provided an abundance of new children's nonfiction books filled with captivating characters and amazing (and sometimes gross) animals. There's history here, and geography, and even some lessons in bravery and perseverance. Parents will love these books because they're educational; children will enjoy them because they're interesting and entertaining. It's a perfect combination that makes everybody happy.
Let's begin with Gorilla Walk (Lothrop, $16), a spectacular book in which veteran children's book authors/illustrators Ted and Betsy Lewin recount their modern-day adventure in the tiny Impenetrable Forest in southern Uganda. Using the picture book format but writing for ages 7-10, the Lewins vividly describe how they lived out a long-held dream to see mountain gorillas -- a rare, endangered species -- in the wild. The radiant watercolor illustrations, most by Ted Lewin, a Caldecott Honor artist, help to draw the reader into the shimmering, verdant landscape of the gorillas' habitat.
Ugandan wildlife experts have worked for years to "habituate" small groups of gorillas so that they are comfortable having humans closely observe them. It's not always easy to find the gorillas, however, and the Lewins find themselves hiking for 11 hours one day, lacking adequate water and picking their way through slippery, scary ravines, before their guides finally locate a gorilla group.
But the time they spend with the gorillas, watching them eat and rest and play with their young, is well worth the effort. As they head back to their guest cottage, the Lewins write, "we're worn out; we're shivering with cold; we've never been happier."
Unlike the Lewins, renowned adventurer Sir Ernest Shackleton never realized his lifelong goal, which was to trek across the Antarctic interior. But his efforts still make a rip-roaring story in Trial by Ice (National Geographic, $17.95), a "photobiography" written for readers ages 7-10.
Author K.M. Kostyal relates how this natural-born leader -- nicknamed the "Boss" -- guided his men safely through an experience far more arduous than they ever dreamed possible. Their ship, called Endurance, became unexpectedly stuck fast in ice for 11 months in 1915 and was eventually crushed when the ice thawed. Yet Shackleton's crew, singing songs and playing soccer on the ice, was able to survive in the harshest climate on earth. They followed the lead of the incurably optimistic Shackleton, whose name, Kostyal writes, has become "synonymous with bravery and endurance."
Kostyal does a fine job of sketching a life of Shackleton, a restless wanderer with a weak heart who died at age 47 on a later Antarctic voyage. The book's duotone photographs add to the drama.
Shackleton was one link in a great tradition of daredevil adventurers. More than 30 other adventurers are spotlighted in The DK Illustrated Book of Great Adventures: Real-Life Tales of Danger and Daring (DK, $15.95). With its many illustrations (most by George Sharp) and reader-friendly layout, this book is a marvelous introduction to an extraordinary group of people who each created a niche in history with his or her death-defying deeds.
Author Richard Platt provides capsule summaries of the feats of heroes like Charles Lindbergh as well as the evil deeds of villains like Blackbeard the Pirate. There are even a few women featured here, including pilot Amelia Earhart, Victorian traveler Mary Kingsley and infamous 17th-century thief Moll Cutpurse.
The extraordinary achievements of 37 American Indians and African Americans in the American West are the focus of an exuberantly illustrated picture book for school-age readers, My Heroes, My People (Farrar Straus Giroux, $18). Written by Morgan Monceaux and Ruth Katcher, and illustrated by Monceaux, My Heroes, My People illuminates lives too often ignored in the white-dominated histories of the American West. The book was a personal quest for Monceaux, who is a mixture of African-American and Indian himself.
Attracted by Monceaux's joyously colored portraits, young readers won't even notice they're reading a history book. Yet they'll learn about people like Biddy Mason, a former slave who won her freedom through a famous California court case, and Seneca chief Ely Parker, a lawyer who wrote out the terms of Gen. Robert E. Lee's surrender at Appomattox.
American Indians are the subjects of three other new books. In Indian School: Teaching the White Man's Way (Clarion, $15), Michael Cooper compellingly details the history of the federally sponsored boarding schools created to "civilize" American Indian children. The book, written for ages 9-12, features starkly contrasting cover photographs depicting a young Navajo before and after his Indian school experience.
Cooper centers his story on the Carlisle Indian School, established in 1879 in Carlisle, Pa., by a frontier Indian fighter named Capt. Richard Pratt. It was Pratt's idea that teaching American Indian children in boarding schools far from their "savage" native environments would eventually offer them a better future.
Many of the students, some as young as 4 years old, were seized from their homes and often didn't see their families again until years later. Within a day of their arrival at the school, Indian boys were shorn of their long hair, depriving them of an important cultural symbol of fertility. Both boys and girls were forced to exchange moccasins and other traditional garments for shoes, trousers and dresses. They were given Anglicized names and forbidden to speak in their native tongues.
Cooper effectively uses students' own words and remarkable period photographs to convey the cultural deprivation, loneliness and abuse that Indian students frequently endured. Many returned to their reservations forever marked by their school experience and yet unable to use their skills at home because of a dearth of jobs.
A talented writer and able historian, Cooper carefully provides some balance to this picture, showing that many Indian students, especially the athletes, thrived in their new environment. Some became famous, like Carlisle alumni Jim Thorpe, an Olympian and football legend. Others made history in different ways, like Susan La Flesche, who became the first American Indian woman doctor.
While Cooper's book highlights the attempt to eradicate American Indian history, two other new books, aimed at readers ages 7-10, demonstrate how tribes are working to renew their culture.
In Thunder Bear and Ko: The Buffalo Nation and Nambe Pueblo (Dutton, $16.99), author/photographer Susan Hazen-Hammond relates the recent struggle of New Mexico Indians to save buffalo herds living on state land from the guns of sports hunters. Hazen-Hammond tells the story through the eyes of 8-year-old Thunder Bear Yates, son of a Nambe Pueblo leader. Thunder Bear's father and grandfather helped bring the sacred buffalo herds back to the Nambe Pueblo several years ago..
Hazen-Hammond provides readers with a fascinating, well-written mixture of old and new, topped by her exquisite, light-filled photographs. Youngsters will discover that Thunder Bear is a boy just like them, someone who loves baseball and fishing and yet revels in the traditional ways of his people. And readers will cheer the pueblo leaders' ultimate success in convincing state officials to give them most of the buffalo.
Preserving traditions also is the theme of Lakota Hoop Dancer (Dutton, $15.99). Authors Jacqueline Left Hand Bull and Suzanne Haldane spotlight a Lakota Indian named Kevin Locke, an expert at a breathtakingly intricate art form called hoop dancing. Locke makes an excellent subject, both because he is so knowledgeable about hoop dancing and because he is so committed to sustaining Indian culture. Lakota Hoop Dancer is further enhanced by Haldane's photographs, particularly those showing how Locke creates designs with his hoops.
Readers ages 7-12 who are fascinated by animals can delve into a vastly different world with Exploding Ants (Atheneum, $16). Subtitled "Amazing Facts About How Animals Adapt," this book by biologist Joanne Settel tells of the wild, weird and often disgusting ways animals and insects survive and thrive. Young readers who find gross behavior thrilling (and what self-respecting school-age kid doesn't?) will marvel at how animals' repellent actions are actually efforts at self-preservation.
Illustrating her text with full-color action photographs, Settel writes with zest about male fireflies trapped and eaten by predatory female fireflies, a baby cuckoo bird that murders its nest mates, ants that explode to defend their colony, and frogs that eat with their eyeballs. It all just goes to prove that fact often is much more interesting than fiction.
Facts are also the focal point of Your World (Kingfisher, $24.95), a striking new encyclopedia for readers ages 5-8. Author Angela Wilkes writes about everything from galaxies to seeds to sleep in this 800-page, fact-jammed volume, which is great for browsing. Each subject is given a two-page spread containing a bit of clearly written text and lots of color illustrations. Wilkes also includes directions for 60 activities to extend the learning.
Finally, give your young reader the world, in book form, with National Geographic Beginner's World Atlas ($17.95). No one does maps or atlases with as much panache and knowledge as National Geographic, and this oversized volume for ages 5-8 is no exception. The large landscape photographs, snappy text and colorfully instructive maps perfectly combine fun and learning.
Karen MacPherson writes frequently about children's books.