Month: March 2011

Scientific Buzz

The Hive Detectives: Chronicle of a Honey Bee Catastrophe
By Loree Griffin Burns
Photography by Ellen Harasimowicz
(Houghton Mifflin Books for Children, New York, 2010, $18)

Part of Houghton Mifflin’s Scientists in the Field series, The Hive Detectives introduces children to bees and the people who study them. Author Loree Griffin Burns and photographer Ellen Harasmowicz visit a backyard beekeeper, a large-scale honey producer, and various bee researchers. Along the way, they – and readers – learn about Colony Collapse Disorder (CCD), a mysterious phenomenon that has puzzled scientists, killed countless hives, and threatened crops and ecosystems worldwide since 2006. They follow entomologists into the field, where they collect bees, and into the laboratory, where they dissect them to find the disorder’s cause. Readers also see honey harvested; stunning close-ups even allow them to glimpse the social insects interacting inside their hives.

With clear prose and vivid photography, The Hive Detectives captures both the excitement of scientific research and the bees’ wonders. A special appendix lists miscellaneous fascinating facts about bees that Burns uncovered while researching the book. She also encourages readers to learn more about bees and to plant bee-friendly flowers. Thus, Burns not only educates kids about the insects’ plight; she includes them in the bees’ recovery.

Dorothy A. Dahm

Tyrants and Homesickness

My Havana: Memories of a Cuban Boyhood
By Rosemary Wells with Secundino Fernandez
Illustrated by Peter Ferguson
(Candlewick Press, Somerville, MA, 2010, $17.99)

For many of us, our first dwelling remains our archetypal home, the one that appears in dreams and the one we recall most vividly. In 1959, when Secundino “Dino” Fernandez was eleven, his family emigrated from Havana to New York. His first few months in America were painful: New York was cold, he spoke very little English, and his classmates and teacher were hostile. Eventually, he learned English, made friends, and became a successful architect, but he never forgot the warm, graceful city of his childhood.

In My Havana: Memories of a Cuban Boyhood, Rosemary Wells tells Fernandez’s story.  Dino Fernandez’s early childhood was idyllic. He spent long afternoons exploring Havana and sketching its palaces and cafés. But politics disrupted the young artist’s life. In 1954, when Dino was six, the Fernandez family visited relatives in Spain. There, a nasty customs guard is Dino’s first introduction to Franco’s fascist regime. When they return to Cuba, the island nation is under the control of General Fulgencio Batista, a brutal dictator who collaborates with gangsters. He is ousted by another dictator, Fidel Castro, who confiscates small businesses. Terrified Castro will take their restaurant, the Fernandezes flee to New York. There, Dino keeps his memories of Havana alive by building a model of his city.

Peter Ferguson’s illustrations bring Fernandez’s Havana and his loss to life. In Havana, the colors are warmer; flowers, cats, and greenery lurk at the peripheries of the page. Readers see a tiny Fernandez family being terrorized by a giant customs guard in Spain; later, a dejected Dino walks alone down a crowded New York sidewalk in the snow.

With its spare first-person narrative, My Havana is a poignant novella, an attractive picture book, and an age-appropriate introduction to tyrants and their effect on ordinary lives. It should resonate with children who love their home, especially those who have had to leave it.

Dorothy A. Dahm

The Dancer, The Composer, and The Artist

Ballet for Martha: Making Appalachian Spring
By Jan Greenberg and Sandra Jordan
Illustrated by Brian Floca
(Roaring Brook Press, New York, 2010, $17.99)

The performing arts are magical because they appear effortless. When you see a dance or theatrical performance, you don’t see the long weeks and months of preparation behind it – or the many creative and hard-working people backstage. In Ballet for Martha, Jan Greenberg, Sandra Jordan, and Brian Floca show children how collaboration, intense effort, and even frustration lie behind the greatest performances.

Ballet for Martha explores how three artists worked together to create the ballet Appalachian Spring. Dancer and choreographer Martha Graham wrote the story and planned the steps, Aaron Copland composed the music, and sculptor Isamu Noguchi designed the stage set. To play their parts, Copland and Noguchi had to understand and embrace Martha’s vision. All three artists had to plan and revise and start from scratch over and over again. (While choreographing the ballet, Graham occasionally threw tantrums, which her dancers took in stride.) All three had to be flexible. But, on October 30, 1944, Appalachian Spring, the simple story of a frontier wedding, premiered to wide acclaim in Washington D.C.

Brian Floca’s illustrations capture both the artists’ perseverance and the excitement of their debut performance. When the curtain finally opens, readers view the lighted stage from the back of the darkened theatre. Then Floca moves in for a series of close-ups, capturing the lithe grace of the female dancers and the robust energy of their male counterparts.

Ballet for Martha is an exhilarating introduction to three artists and art forms. Perhaps the most exciting and inspiring line appears on the last page when the authors discuss future interpretations of Appalachian Spring: “And the collaboration will be created anew.” There, Greenberg and Jordan invite kids to think of art not as the static product of one exceptional brain, but the ever-changing creation of many minds.

Dorothy A. Dahm

Commander in Song

Our Abe Lincoln: An Old Tune with New Lyrics
Adapted by Jim Aylesworth
Illustrated by Barbara McClintock
(Scholastic Press, New York, 2009, $16.99)

For generations, educators have used music to teach children facts and concepts. In Our Abe Lincoln, Jim Aylesworth adapts a Lincoln campaign ditty to teach young readers about the sixteenth president of the United States. Sung to the tune of “The Old Grey Mare,” the song summarizes Lincoln’s life, starting with his birth in a log cabin, extols his virtues, and highlights his accomplishments.

Barbara McClintock’s illustrations complement the rousing tune. Instead of drawings of Lincoln, she gives us a little boy dressed as Honest Abe for a school play. The boy and his classmates appear in various tableaux of the president’s life. The result is gently amusing – it’s impossible not to laugh at a child in a beard – and occasionally poignant, especially when readers see the Civil War weighing heavily on Lincoln’s mind. McClintock might have used the stage as a device to make the biography accessible to children. However, her stage sets and pint-sized actors make the book equally appealing to adults.

Our Abe Lincoln is a lively introduction to one of history’s most popular presidents. An excellent book for parents to read aloud, the biography should prompt children to ask questions about Lincoln’s life and presidency. Adults will enjoy sharing this book with children, even those who can read for themselves.

Dorothy A. Dahm