Book List: Water, from snowflakes to African ponds

looking deeper
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There is an excellent article, “The Importance of Water to Human Life and to the Operation of the Human Body” where you learn that next to air, water is the most important element for life to survive.  Water is essential to the functioning of every cell in your body: 2/3 of your body weight is water, including 75% of your brain, 83% of your blood, 22% of your bones, 75% of your muscles, and 90% of your lungs.

Because water is such a broad and important topic, it is difficult to know where to begin.  I decided to approach water from an unusual perspective, so I chose a quote from Wilson A. (“Snowflake”) Bentley whose picture book biography Snowflake Bentley is featured on our book list this month:  “Of all the forms of water, the tiny six-pointed crystals of ice called snow, that form in such quantities within the clouds during storms, are incomparably the most beautiful and varied.”  And Snowflake Bentley should know:  he spent his life photographing snowflakes.

Bentley was born in 1865 in Vermont where he lived his entire life.  According to the award-winning author, Jacqueline Briggs Martin, Vermont, the heart of the “snowbelt” receives 120 inches of snowfall each winter. Although he had little formal education, Bentley had a microscope which he used to study flowers, raindrops, and grass – but most of all, he loved to look at snowflakes—and he never found two that were alike.

When Bentley was 16, he discovered a camera with its own microscope, and convinced his parents to spend their savings on the camera that cost as much as ten milk cows.

Nature's Geometry
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The next winter, Bentley unsuccessfully attempted to photograph snowflakes.  However, a year later he found a way to make it possible for everyone to see “the great beauty in a tiny crystal.”  Winters passed–some winters he could take only a few pictures, and some winters he was able to take hundreds.

Bentley gave speeches about snow and published pictures in magazines.  However, he never became rich because he spent his money on his pictures.  Ironically, after a long walk to photograph snowflakes, Snowflake Bentley died of pneumonia.

The Caldecott Medal is awarded annually by the American Library Association, to the artist of the most distinguished American picture book for children.  Snowflake Bentley won the Caldecott Medal in 1999.

I met author Jane Kurtz when the Museum opened the exhibit Lucy’s Legacy: The Hidden Treasures of Ethiopia.  Jane, the daughter of a missionary, grew up in Ethiopia, and many of her books provide insight into that country.  Jane and her brother Christopher wrote Water Hole Waiting, the simple story of life on the African savanna and the importance of water to life.

Tooth brush
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When morning arrives, the monkeys are ready to eat and drink.  However, mother monkey grabs her child’s paw to keep him away “from hippo’s yawning jaws,” as the hippos drink and swim in the water hole.  When the hippos leave, the monkey tries again to visit the water hole, but are held back because “the grazers” (including zebras) are running down the path.  But the zebras have to be careful, too; crocodiles are waiting for their breakfast!  Again, mother monkey holds her child back.  And so, the day at the water hole progresses from early morning until evening when the monkeys finally get to drink.

The Authors’ Note provides additional insight into life at a watering hole.  It appears that animals take turns with different species drinking at different times; however, during the dry time, different species may drink together. Children will understand when the Kurtzes explain, “…whether you’re a thirsty monkey hanging back while a lion drinks or a person hiding near a water hole hoping to spot a parade of animals, waiting is never easy.”

The large, colorful illustrations almost give an insight into the animals’ personalities—look at their eyes and expressions!  I am not sure I could last all day watching the water hole, but if the animals resemble the illustrations, I would certainly try.

Because I like the simplicity of the Kurtzes’ book, I also chose another on the same topic: The Water Hole by Graeme Base.  Base is an Australian author whose alliteration-filled alphabet book Animalia and picture book mystery The Eleventh Hour are favorites with teachers, children and parents.  The pages of all three books feature amazing borders to complement the incredible illustrations.

The Water Hole is a counting book that takes you around the world looking at animals and birds in their native habitats, all drinking at water holes.

One hippo is the first to drink at the shrinking water hole located in Africa.  Look beyond the hippo to find the giraffe, the lion, the chimpanzee, the impala, the cheetah, the elephant, the wildebeest, the crested crane and the leopard, all native to Africa, camouflaged in the background.  How do you know which animals to look for?  The border tells you!

Two tigers are visiting their ever-shrinking water hole in India, with ten animals camouflaged in their background.  The book proceeds through three toucans from South America, four snow leopards from the Himalayas, etc., completing the around the world journey with ten kangaroos in Australia, where the water hole has stopped shrinking because it is completely dry.

And, when the water hole dries up all the animals are forced to leave.  Later, it begins to rain.  (Look for a map of the world in the raindrops.)  And, what happens when the water hole fills up?  You know—everyone returns as animals and birds from every continent share one water hole.

Don’t forget:  Water is good for you and it’s cheap!  Drink up!

Book List: Warfare and Soldiers

HMNS is currently hosting three special exhibitions, two of which are Genghis Khan and Terra Cotta Warriors: Guardians of China’s First Emperor, so the topic for this month’s booklist is soldiers and warfare.

Jean Fritz, author of Traitor: The Case of Benedict Arnold, has written numerous books about American history and explains her work: “My approach is that of a reporter, trying for a scoop, looking for clues, connecting facts, digging under the surface.”  Because of this, her books bring history alive as she helps students understand the personalities and motivations of the individuals who shaped our country.

The first few sentences of Traitor are a powerful and telling introduction to Arnold’s life:  “When Benedict Arnold was a teenager, some people in his hometown of Norwich, Connecticut, predicted that he’d grow up to be a success.  Others said, No.  Benedict Arnold would turn out badly.  As it happened, everyone was right.” 

fort mifflin gun crew
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Fritz introduces you to an Arnold you probably did not know—a druggist and a sea captain who loved shoes but was obsessed with his honor.  The Revolutionary War provided a unique stage for Arnold, and he became a general–but made many enemies along the way. 

In Philadelphia, Arnold met fashionable but spoiled Peggy Shippen, whose father was sympathetic to the British.  They were married, but the happy day was clouded by Arnold’s upcoming court martial and increasing financial problems.  Arnold began to think that if he “could not win the war for the Americans, he might at least bring the war to an end,” and become a hero.  With this thinking, becoming a traitor was not difficult. According to Fritz, Arnold apparently never understood the enormity of his actions. 

civil war reenactment-american museum 2005
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Paul Fleischman, author of Bull Run, won a Newbery Medal, as did his author father, Sid Fleischman.  After growing up in California, Paul lived in New England, and his love of history grew.  “I thought about teaching history as a career, but decided to bring it into my books instead.”   Bull Run is a collection of short monologues – so, in addition to being read by individuals, this book is suitable for classes to read aloud.  The book has 16 characters, both men and women—one only 11 years old– in sets of 8 from the North and 8 from the South.  The characters describe their lives and experiences leading up to and including the Battle of Bull Run, the Civil War’s first major battle.  Because of the number of individuals involved, you experience  the battle and its aftermath from many perspectives as the characters learn that war is not a game.

Newbery Medal winner Avi is one of the most popular authors for children and young adults.  The Award-winning book, The Fighting Ground, is a fictional account of a day in the life of 13-year-old Jonathan during the Revolutionary War.  Jonathan’s older brother and cousin are soldiers, and his father had been wounded near Philadelphia. More than anything, Jonathan wants to be a soldier, too.  When the bell at the town tavern began to ring, Jonathan tricks his mother into letting him investigate what is happening, and as he leaves home, his day-long adventure begins. Jonathan comes to realize that being a soldier is not glamorous, and when he is captured by the Hessians, his journey towards manhood continues as he is exposed to the horrors of war.

Author notes:

Many of the titles of Jean Fritz’s books about American history end with a question mark. Will You Sign Here, John Hancock?, What’s the Big Idea, Ben Franklin?, and And Then What Happened, Paul Revere?  Perhaps her best-known book is her memoir, Homesick, that tells the story of her childhood growing up in China in the 1920’s and China Homecoming, the story of her return to China years later.

Paul Fleischman’s Joyful Noise: Poems for Two Voiceswon the Newbery Medal, but don’t miss Seedfolks and WhirligigSeedfolks illustrates the power of one person to change a community, and Whirligig is the story of teenage Brent who drives drunk and kills innocent Lea.  Lea’s mother asks Brent to put a whirligig that looks like Lea in Washington, California, Florida and Maine, and his journey to fulfill this request leads to his own inner journey.

Books by Avi that should not be missed are The True Confessions of Charlotte Doyle, Nothing But the Truth and Wolf Rider.  Readers will be fascinated by Charlotte’s adventures on her transatlantic voyage in 1832, including being accused of murdering the ship’s captain.  In Nothing But the Truth, high school freshman Phillip Malloy’s humming of “The Star Spangled Banner” sets in motion a series of events which leads to the question, “What really IS the truth?”  Wolf Rider has the best opening sentence I have ever read.  After reading that sentence, you cannot put the book down.

Gems and Minerals

The Houston Museum of Natural Science is currently hosting a special exhibition, The Nature of Diamonds, so this month our booklist features Gems and minerals.

According to a mineral is the same all the way through, and  there are about 3000 known minerals on earth.  A rock, on the other hand, is made from two or more minerals. 

For young children, Let’s Go Rock Collecting by Roma Gans is a great introduction to rocks.  The book begins by saying that people collect many things, and that the oldest thing you can collect is rocks.  In simple terms, with wonderful illustrations and photographs, Ms. Gans explains the three types of rocks—igneous rocks, sedimentary rocks and metamorphic rocks.

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You will learn how magma becomes lava which becomes igneous rocks. You will also see photographs of granite, quartz and basalt –  all igneous rocks.  Sandstone and limestone are examples of sedimentary rocks.  The Egyptian pyramids were made from limestone. In modernt times, limestone is mixed to make cement. Metamorphic rock means changed.  Slate is a metamorphic rock that used to be shale before being exposed to intense heat and pressure.

Children are encouraged to collect rocks, and examples of simple rock collections are pictured.  Rocks are everywhere, so collecting rocks is an inexpensive introduction to science.  And, who knows?  You might grow up to be president of the Houston Museum of Natural Science!

Byrd Baylor’s Everybody Needs a Rock begins “Everybody needs a rock.  I’m sorry for kids who don’t have a rock for a friend.”  Baylor gives the reader rules for finding a special rock, something you might keep forever.  The rules say you can find a rock anywhere, but make your choice when things are quiet.  You need to look the rock in the eye to make sure it is the perfect size, color, shape and smell.  Do not let anyone help you make the choice — the decision is yours alone. 
Baylor’s words paired with Peter Parnall’s simple black and bronze drawings work together to create quite a book that will make children anxious to begin the search for their own rock.

Gemstones by Ann O. Squire is a nonfiction introduction to gems.  You learn that deep within the earth, high temperatures and pressure transform minerals into crystals which can be cut, polished and sold for thousands of dollars.  A crystal must pass 3 tests to be considered a gemstone:  it must be rare; it must be beautiful; and it must be hard enough to resist scratching or breaking.

bariteSquire says that gemstones began forming millions of years ago up to 100 miles beneath the earth’s surface.  The intense heat caused the rocks to become magma which contains tiny mineral crystals.  Pressure caused the magma to erupt from the earth as a volcano or flowing between layers of rock.

Diamonds, rubies, sapphires and emeralds are inorganic minerals, meaning they have never been alive.  A pearl, however, comes from a living source — an oyster.  Amber comes from the sap of trees that lived long ago and coral is made from the skeletons of tiny sea creature.
Squire briefly explains some of the superstitions involving gemstones and tells how the idea of birthstones began.

Don’t miss the Cullen Hall of Gems and Minerals including the Lester and Sue Smith Gem Vault on the second floor of the Houston Museum of Natural Science.  You will see the most incredible collection of gems and minerals in the world.

May Book List: Hispanic Culture

One of the best ways for children to learn about different cultures is through literature.  When children read about other cultures, their respect for that culture grows as their knowledge of it increases.  And, when children see themselves in books it enhances their self-esteem and helps them develop pride in their culture.  In addition to learning about the Hispanic experience, children’s books about our southern neighbors are colorful, insightful and just plain fun.  Three of my favorites are described below.

Lois Ehlert’s “Moon Rope” (Un lazo a la luna) is an adaptation of the Peruvian tale “The Fox and the Mole,” and her fascination with pre-Columbian art is readily visible in the collage illustrations which reflect Peruvian culture.  Written in both English and Spanish, this is the story of a fox who wants to climb to the moon on a rope of grass.  He convinces his friend the mole to go with him, but the mole returns to the earth where he stays to this day. What happened to the fox?  Can you see him in the moon? 

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Author-illustrator Tomie dePaola’s books are easily recognized for their bright colors, simple lines and wonderful stories.  DePaola has the distinction of having been honored by the American Library Association with both the Newbery Honor Book Award (the most distinguished contribution to American literature for children) and the Caldecott Honor Book Award (the most distinguished American picture book for children.)  “The Legend of the Poinsettia” follows dePaola’s incredibly successful “The Legend of the Bluebonnet” and “The Legend of the Indian Paintbrush,” legends familiar to every schoolchild in Texas. 

In “The Legend of the Poinsettia,” Lucida’s family lives in the mountains of Mexico.  One day near Christmas, Padre Alvarez visits her family and asked Lucida’s mother to weave a new blanket for the figure of Baby Jesus in the Christmas procession.  The blanket is a gift to the Baby Jesus on Christmas Eve. After buying the finest yarn, Lucida’s mother becomes sick and has to live with relatives until she recovers.  Lucida tries to weave the blanket, but the yarn becomes hopelessly tangled.  On Christmas Eve Lucida hides because she has no gift to give, but an old woman tells her, “Any gift is beautiful because it is given.”  Lucida gathers green weeds, places them around the altar in the church and kneels to pray.  Instantly, the end of each weed becomes tipped with a flaming red star, and the weeds outside the church are transformed, too.  The people of the village call the brightly colored flowers “La Flor de Nochebuena” – the Flower of the Holy Night – the poinsettia.  Lucida’s simple gift is a part of our Christmas traditions today.

Gary Solo is a well-known Hispanic author of both books for children and young adults.  The picture book “Too Many Tamales” celebrates family love at Christmas.  Maria and her mother are making tamales for Christmas Eve dinner.  While kneading the masa, the temptation becomes too great for Maria, and she tries on her mother’s special ring before she returns to making the tamales.  A few hours later aunts, uncles and cousins arrive and the children go upstairs to play.  Maria suddenly remembers the ring and knew it must have been baked into one of the 24 tamales.  The cousins ate all the tamales, but found no ring, so Maria had to tell her mother what she had done.  All’s well that ends well, and Maria’s Aunt Rosa reminds everyone that the second batch of tamales always tastes better than the first!

A Native American Kiva 
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Plan a visit to the McGovern Hall of the Americas on the third floor of the Houston Museum of Natural Science.  This incredible hall has examples of Native American life from the Arctic to the Amazon.  You will learn about life in a kiva, see a collection of kachina dolls, discover the importance of the jaguar to the cacao fields, witness an ancient ball game played by the Aztecs and so much more!  After reading about Hispanic culture, you will experience it for yourself.