New nonfiction to whet young readers' appetites for adventure

Posted: Thursday, August 13, 2009

"The Mysterious Universe," by Ellen Jackson, photos and illustrations by Nic Bishop. This stunningly photographed book brings the science of astronomy to life. Astronomer Alex Filippenko is our guide to the sky and all the things we can't even see. Readers will find it easy to grasp the immensity of the universe and will feel more than a tug of curiosity with his enthusiastic and creative help. Spend a few days with Alex and one of his graduate students hunting for supernovae with the Mauna Kea telescope in Hawaii and learn how today's big telescopes work and why an astronomer's job is important.

"Off to War," by Deborah Ellis. What is it like when your mom or dad is a soldier? What if they get sent to war? Ellis, best-known for her children's novels about Afghanistan, has gathered stories from American and Canadian children whose soldier parents are stationed in Afghanistan and Iraq. Teens and young kids talk openly about how much they miss the everyday things, and yet, how hard it can be for everyone to find their places in the family again when mom or dad comes home. They wonder aloud whether their parent has killed someone, and whether it would make a difference if they had. Some of the kids live on military bases where everyone they know is going through the same thing, but others live off-base, where their friends don't know what to say. For more powerful stories about war from children's points of view, pick up "Children of War: voices of Iraqi refugees," also by Ellis. One of Ellis' amazing skills is letting the kids speak for themselves: some have strong opinions about the war and their part in it, others do not, allowing readers to draw their own conclusions.

"The Raucous Royals," by Carlyn Beccia. Part history, part rumor, part mystery, these oft-heard statements are followed by enough historical evidence to let the reader mull things over before the answer is revealed (although sometimes the answer is: you decide!). Was Prince Dracula really a vampire? Was Catherine the Great crushed to death by her horse? And what about Henry VIII? His whole family has been plagued by gossip, from the fate of his six wives to the vicious battle for power between his two daughters, Mary and Elizabeth. Tidbits of information abound, including medieval menus, secret codes, and hygiene tips (but you probably won't want to try any!).

"Mars and the Search for Life," by Elaine Scott. Is there life on Mars? We don't know yet, but we're on our way to finding out. Join Scott as she takes readers on a journey through time and space, from the earliest sightings of the only red planet in our solar system to the Rover landings of today. She explains why it's so important for scientists to know whether or not there has ever been water on Mars, and what kinds of evidence they are looking for. There's a great overview of how the Mars rovers were designed and named and what kind of instruments they carry, and then a look at how scientists decided where the explorers would land. Scott wraps up by showing the preparations that are underway for long-term, human colonization of Mars. Beautiful photos and clear illustrations augment the text and draw readers right along to the stirring conclusion that humans will continue to explore space, not because it is easy, but because it is our nature.

"Sea Cows, Shamans, and Scurvy," by Ann Arnold. Georg Steller, a young German naturalist with a taste for adventure, became part of Vitus Bering's second expedition to Kamchatka in 1737. Steller was a most industrious person, even for a scientist, and often forgot to eat or bathe when he was immersed in a project (which was nearly always). Scientists back then weren't as specialized as they are today, and he became the expedition's naturalist, anthropologist, mineralogist, and doctor. His journal is full of drawings of the plants, animals, and people he studied along with detailed descriptions of their behavior and customs. He also performed dissections on new animals he encountered and, in the name of science, often cooked and ate his specimens. (The Steller's sea cow was deemed exceptionally tasty and became extinct 30 years later.) Filled with delightful sketches, this is an adventurous biography of an extraordinary man.

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