SOCKEYE’S JOURNEY HOME:The Story of a Pacific Salmon,by Barbara Gaines Winkelman, with illustrations by Joanie Popeo. (Soundprints, $15.95; grades K-2.) In 1988, a Connecticut-based stuffed-toy manufacturer launched a small publishing division and began turning out a series of children’s books to accompany a new line of animals. These weren’t your everyday stuffed creatures. They were designed—in partnership with the Smithsonian Institution’s National Museum of Natural History—to look lifelike. As it turns out, the books aren’t run-of-the-mill, either.
Blending an engaging narrative with loads of fascinating facts, each volume focuses on the life and characteristics of a single animal. But equally important, the books do a fabulous job of exploring the various creatures’ habitats—whether high desert, coastal tide pool, or tropical rain forest.
While the storylines of the books tend toward the formulaic—many of the featured animals, for example, face some life-threatening danger from which they escape—the authors and illustrators eschew, to their credit, any trace of the anthropomorphism so popular in children’s books.
Since launching this outstanding “Wild Heritage” series, Soundprints (the publisher also markets audio recordings of its titles) has introduced several others with a wildlife focus—including “Oceanic” and “Backyard” collections with the Smithsonian and a “Habitat” collection with the Nature Conservancy. Sockeye’s Journey Home is the latest entry in the Oceanic series, and, like the earlier Soundprints books, it is first-rate.
The text follows a full-grown sockeye, one of seven Pacific Ocean salmon species, on its treacherous journey from the sea, through the Strait of Juan de Fuca and Seattle’s Lake Union, to spawning waters high up in the Cedar River watershed. The route is laced with obstacles. The salmon must not only circumvent locks and dams but also steer clear of predators—orcas, bears, bald eagles, and humans, among them. As they travel from salt water to fresh, the salmon change color and shape, and Popeo’s crisp, bright paintings chronicle this transformation and also capture many of the journey’s most dramatic moments.
With efforts afoot to preserve dwindling salmon populations, this book couldn’t be more topical. Although the narrative does not mention the ecological problems that threaten the fish, an informative author’s note on the final page explains the devastating effects of deforestation and development. Complicating the issue is the fact that salmon habitats extend for miles up rivers and streams, touching many industries. By tracing the sockeye’s long pilgrimage to its spawning ground, Winkelman and Popeo give kids a firm knowledge base about salmon and an inkling of the problems we need to solve to save them.
In addition to Sockeye’s Journey Home, Soundprints has just published two other books: Realm of the Panther, set in the forests of South Florida, and Great Grizzly Wilderness, set in a Pacific rain forest. These three volumes, indeed all of Soundprints’ wildlife titles, would be a perfect upgrade for any school or classroom library serving children in the early grades.
—Blake Hume Rodman
THE AMBER SPYGLASS: His Dark Materials, Book III,by Philip Pullman. (Knopf, $19.95; grades 6 and up.) In a year that has produced a remarkable crop of powerful, disturbing, and challenging books for children and young adults, the publication of this, the eagerly anticipated concluding volume of Pullman’s “His Dark Materials” trilogy, is a fitting finale.
The first volume, The Golden Compass, is the story of Lyra Silvertongue, a 12-year-old who’s been abandoned by her scholar-aristocrat father and power- hungry mother to be raised by the faculty and staff of an Oxford residential college. Lyra’s Oxford, however, is located in an alternate universe, similar yet different from our own. In her world, all people are accompanied by daemons, or spirits, which take the forms of animals, and they’re ruled by a repressive, powerful church, known as the Magisterium.
At one point, Lyra is given an alethiometer, a compass-like device that allows her to find the true answers to many of her questions. Following the alethiometer’s lead, she is drawn northward, toward a church-operated research laboratory, where cruel experiments are performed on kidnapped children.
In the second book, The Subtle Knife, she’s joined by Will Parry, another 12-year-old, who’s an inhabitant of our world. Like Lyra, he is destined to wield a powerful tool—the Aesahaettr, a knife so sharp it enables its user to cut passages between the parallel worlds. Lyra, who encountered Will while pursuing her father, now joins Will in a search for his father, an Arctic explorer who disappeared 10 years earlier while looking for a portal between the worlds.
In the final volume, the heroic quests of Lyra and Will merge into an epic of grander scope. The two now face the most daunting task imaginable: Driven by Lyra’s vivid dreams, they must travel to the land of the dead, then make their way back to the worlds of the living. While they’re on their quest, two forces composed of men, angels, and their allies mount an apocalyptic battle. On one side is the Authority, who rules the worlds through his churches, and on the other is Lord Asriel, leading an army of rebels. What Will and Lyra are unaware of, until later, is that everyone’s fate hinges on the personal and painful choices the two children must make.
All the great themes are here: the power of love, the possibility of redemption, the purpose of humanity, the meaning of life. What’s astonishing is Pullman’s ability to introduce and do justice to them while still offering a fast-paced story, nail-biting suspense, vibrant and memorable characters, and marvelously realized worlds.
Pullman’s books are works of great depth and beauty that do not shy from painful truths. But they are also books filled with ideas. Readers should be aware that questions on the nature of being, the existence of God, and the validity of traditional religions are raised in ways that many will find challenging and disturbing.
—Stephen Del Vecchio
AESOP’S FABLES,by Jerry Pinkney. (SeaStar, $19.95; grades K-12.) You say your classroom already has two Aesop collections and doesn’t need another? Then you haven’t seen this new volume by four-time Caldecott Honor- winner Pinkney. It may not be the definitive collection—it contains but 60 of the roughly 200 stories gathered for the first Aesop’s edition, published in Greece around 300 B.C.—but all your favorites are here: “The Grasshopper and the Ants,” “The Tortoise and the Hare,” “The Fox and the Grapes,” “The Goose and the Golden Egg.” The retellings are lively, and the morals as wise as ever, but what really makes this version of the fables irresistible are Pinkney’s magnificent watercolors. Some are no bigger than a postage stamp, others cover a full page, and one—a painting of a golden-maned lion and the little mouse that has just gnawed him free from his captors’ net—fills an entire spread. In an introduction, Pinkney writes that he was drawn to the project because it “wed the fondly remembered narratives of my youth with an appreciation of their ongoing lessons in my adult life.” Aesop’s fables—the stories and their messages—have unrivaled staying power. This is a collection to grow old with.
THE SPIRIT OF ENDURANCE: The True Story of the Shackleton Expedition to the Antarctic,by Jennifer Armstrong, with illustrations by William Maughan. (Crown, $16.95; grades 1-6.) Sir Ernest Shackleton’s 1914 voyage to Antarctica aboard the ship Endurance is one of the great survival stories of all time. Stuck in ice off the southernmost continent for more than a year, Shackleton and his 27-member crew might as well have been on the moon; they were that cut off from the rest of the world. Miraculously, everyone was saved, thanks to the heroism of the commander who set off in a small boat across the Atlantic to get help. Armstrong, author of Shipwreck at the Bottom of the World, an award-winning book about the Endurance voyage for older kids, relates the events in clear, concise prose. The text runs long for a picture book—some 200 words per page—but it never lags. And the oversized eleven-by-fourteen- inch format leaves plenty of room for Maughan’s dramatic illustrations and a number of photographs taken on the expedition. It’s an inspiring story about faith, courage, and perseverance that many children won’t forget.
THE WORD EATER,by Mary Amato. (Holiday House, $15.95; grades 2-6.) Having just moved from Wisconsin, Lerner Chanse is starting 6th grade at the Cleveland Park Middle School in Washington, D.C. Lonely and missing her friends, she tries to fit in by joining the MPOOE (Most Powerful Ones on Earth) Club, led by bossy Reba Silo. But a combination of bad luck and nagging doubts about the club force Lerner out of the running, so she finds herself relegated to the ranks of the SLUGs (Sorry Losers Under Ground). Then she makes a strange discovery. Fip, a tiny pink worm she saves from a crow’s beak, turns out to have a magical power. He not only eats words, but when he does, whatever is represented by those words vanishes. During a science test, for example, Fip eats the words “photosynthesis exam” on Lerner’s copy and all the tests in the classroom disappear. Lerner is tempted to use the worm’s talents for revenge and personal gain, but she quickly realizes how dangerous and unpredictable that could be. And while coming up with a way to responsibly manage Fip’s skills, she makes new friends and discovers the power of language.
STELLA, QUEEN OF THE SNOW,by Marie-Louise Gay. (Groundwood, $15.95; grades K-1.) Few things both delight and perplex children as much as snow, and that combination is what Gay, a Canadian, taps into in this follow-up to her widely read Stella, Star of the Sea. Here the irrepressible redhead ventures out on a snowy day with her hesitant little brother, Sam, who has never seen the white stuff before. As they move from one adventure to the next, Sam plies Stella with questions—"Can you eat snow?” “Where does a snowman sleep?” “Why is fog coming out of my mouth?"—which Stella assuredly answers with a childlike mixture of fact and fiction. This true-to-life banter and the accompanying watercolors are just plain cute.
THE JOURNAL OF WONG MING-CHUNG: A Chinese Miner, California, 1852,by Laurence Yep. (Scholastic, $10.95; grades 3-6.) Told in the form of a diary written by 12-year-old Wong Ming-Chung, whose nickname is Runt, this story is set in Southern China and California in 1851 and 1852. China, at the time, was beset by wars, drought, flood, and famine, and many Chinese were heading to California, seeking better lives. In Runt’s case, he is sent by his father to join his uncle, Precious Stone, who is head of the clan. Runt’s intelligence, curiosity, courage, and persistence, not to mention his reading and writing skills, serve him well in the new land, where the Chinese face tremendous obstacles, not the least of which is prejudice. Wong’s diary is an engrossing story and a perfect introduction to the Chinese immigrant experience and the California Gold Rush.
REDHANDED,by Michael Cadnum. (Viking, $15.99; grades 8 and up.) At 16, Steven Beech is struggling with the disappointments of his parents’ separation and his father’s irresponsibility. And although he has a shot at boosting his self-esteem by competing in the Golden Gloves West Coast tournament, he thinks the only way to pay for the entrance fee and travel expenses is to help his friends rob a liquor store. Cadnum portrays Steven in a way that makes his mix of bravado, doubt, ruthlessness, and decency palpable and convincing. This fresh take on the classic story of the young and promising boxer facing temptation is powered by Cadnum’s razor sharp eye for detail, especially his ability to capture the small twists of conversation and subtle tics of body language in ways that convey character with clarity and precision. Consequently, Redhanded is not a clichéd look at teenagers; it’s a high- speed run down the treacherous slope of adolescence.
—Blake Hume Rodman and Stephen Del Vecchio