Take your students on a fact-filled African expedition with a selection of titles about awe-inspiring creatures. Handsomely illustrated with stunning photos and/or striking artwork, these books introduce various species, provide insights about their habitats, and highlight environmental concerns and conservation challenges. The titles have been selected to support a range of reading abilities and interest levels, spanning from picture books suitable for providing overviews or sharing aloud, to more detailed accounts appropriate for deeper classroom studies or individual research. Use these books as part of a report-writing unit on animals, to launch a study of various biomes, to explore the issues facing endangered species, or to build an appreciation of the diversity of wildlife and the importance of maintaining ecological balance.
Out of Africa
Begin your armchair adventure with Dan Kainen’s eye-catching Safari: A Photicultural Book (Workman, 2012; Gr 3 Up). Utilizing a cutting-edge lenticular technology, the photographic images (made from finely sliced video frames and overlaid with a sheet of thin plastic lenses) spring to life in graceful motion. Lift the book’s cover and a cheetah sprints across a stark grassland (if the cover is moved more slowly, the motion also decelerates, providing viewers with a slo-mo look at the stride of the world’s fastest land animal). Other mesmerizing images depict a lioness barreling head-on toward readers, a close-up of a western lowland gorilla chewing a plant, and an African elephant flapping its ears. Viewers observe the different gaits of a lumbering black rhinoceros, nimble young zebra, fleet-footed Thomson’s gazelle, and regally sauntering giraffe.
Author Carol Kaufmann sets a you-are-there tone by describing her own safari adventure to Kenya’s Masai Mara reserve (and the thrill of viewing these creatures in person). A page about each featured animal offers facts and vivid observations (e.g., “The patterns and whimsical swirls of a zebra’s stripes are as individual as the swirls of a human fingerprint”) and points out important conservation issues. Though the text is best suited to more confident readers, the expressive writing and irresistible images make this book a lovely choice for sharing aloud with younger students.
Predators and Prey
Beginning with a vivid account of a hungry lioness stalking, chasing, and pulling down a zebra, Darrin Lunde and Catherine Stock’s dramatic picture book provides a revealing glimpse at the circle of life on East Africa’s Serengeti Plain. Tautly written text and sun-drenched watercolors describe what happens After the Kill (Charlesbridge, 2011; Gr 2-5), as the carcass is fought over and consumed by both predators and scavengers.
The competition is fierce: male and female members of the pride, a hyena clan, a pair of clever jackals, and several species of vultures all vie for a share of meat. Finally, a horde of tiny meat-eating beetles “swarm inside the skull, squeeze between the teeth, and wiggle inside the ears” until the skeleton is picked clean and the bones are left to “slowly turn to dust.”
The text tells it like it is, using action-packed and lyrical language and an objective tone, and the artwork depicts events with images that capture both the essence of these animals and the intensity of their confrontations. Paragraphs presented in a smaller font offer details about the creatures and their habitat. A compelling and interesting-to-discuss read-aloud, this book can launch studies of African animals, the area’s ecology, and the life-and-death survival stories hidden away within the food chain.
Wildlife photographers and researchers Beverly and Dereck Joubert take readers to Botswana’s Okavango Delta to go Face to Face with Leopards (National Geographic, 2009; Gr 2-6). Gorgeous, crystal-clear images and lucid text detail the couple’s first encounter with an eight-day-old cub, named Legadema (“lightning” in the local language), an animal that they observed and photographed in the wild during a four-year period.
Facts about the physical characteristics and behaviors of leopards are deftly woven into Dereck’s enthusiastic first-person narrative, delightfully embellished by his in-the-field observations. For example, the author describes how Legadema, provided with an impala meal by her mother, “…played with it by chasing it and pouncing on it. This game helped her to practice the hunting skills she would need to survive on her own one day.”
Throughout, captioned photos illustrate the information presented in the text. A chapter focuses on the problems facing these creatures, including habitat loss and hunting, as well as the important role that predators play in the balance of nature. Suggestions for how youngsters can help leopards are appended, along with tips for tracking local wildlife, at-a-glance facts, and annotated websites.
Also ideal for sharing aloud in the classroom, Cheetah (Frances Lincoln, 2012; K-Gr 3), part of the “Eye on the Wild” series written and photographed by Suzi Eszterhas, zooms in on a mother and her cubs, describing the first two years of their lives in the open grasslands of the African plains. The straightforward narrative reads like a story, as Mom cares for her offspring, protects them from danger, and teaches them to survive on their own.
Exquisite, close-up portraits (newborns, eyes still closed, chirping for a snack or the mother licking her cubs dry) are balanced with breathtaking action shots (Mom bounding full-speed after a gazelle, or a pair of six-month-old siblings roughhousing). The accessible text (neatly printed against clean white backdrops), enticing visuals, and basic facts make this book a solid choice for the youngest report writers or big cat fans, while the author’s focus on how young cheetahs are reared provides opportunity for comparison to the family life of other animals.
Hunter and Scavenger
In Hyenas (Marshall Cavendish, 2011; Gr 3-6), part of the “Animals Animals” series, Gloria G. Schlaepfer provides an overview of these “tough and clever” carnivores and the valuable role they play in the Africa’s ecosystem, both controlling the population of prey animals as predators, and serving as “nature’s cleanup crew.” Clearly written text and attractive photos introduce these extremely social mammals, comparing and contrasting the four species (including the habitat-spanning spotted hyena and much smaller and shyer aardwolf) and describing their physical characteristics and way of life. Specific examples support the narrative and make the information easy to process for readers; for example, a hyena’s waste-nothing way of eating is elucidated as follows: “A hungry pack can reduce a 992-pound…zebra to a pile of hooves and clumps of hide and hair in thirty minutes.” The book’s logical organization, helpful index, and vocabulary terms in bold font (defined in an appended glossary) make it useful for report writers.
Two books on these intriguing primates take very different approaches to the subject matter. In another volume from the “Eye on the Wild” series, Eszterhas blends a simple narrative with riveting photos to describe the first years in the life of a baby Gorilla (Frances Lincoln, 2012; K-Gr 3). Facts about these mountain dwellers are seamlessly integrated into the storytelling and supported by the marvelous up-close images, which depict the young primate interacting with her mother (nursing, cuddling, grooming, cruising piggyback style), exploring and learning about her environment, wrestling with the other members of her troop, and gradually maturing from a helpless infant to a six-year-old adult, “ready to have a baby of her own.”
Rather than spotlighting a particular family group, Gail Gibbons provides an informative overview of Gorillas (Holiday, 2011; K-Gr 4) packed with facts and illustrated with detailed, watercolor paintings. Lush-hued spreads introduce the different kinds of gorillas and their habitats, physical characteristics, and diet before describing a typical day in the lives of these animals, touching upon their adaptations to the environment, communication, the rearing of young, and more. The book ends with a mention of conservation efforts and the role played by zoos in helping “people learn to respect gorillas and understand why they should be protected.” The text is straightforward, and a pleasure to read aloud, and the artwork expands the information with slice-of-life images, maps, labeled diagrams, close-ups, and even cut-aways (an image of a skull with large teeth and strong jaw muscles help readers understand how gorillas grind up coarse food).
Used in tandem, these books offer an elucidating introduction to world’s largest primates. Read both titles aloud and have your students formulate a list of primate characteristics and behaviors. Have them compare and contrast the two titles and discuss each author’s writing style, method of conveying information, and use of illustrations to support the text. How are facts presented in each book? How do different types of visuals (photos, paintings, diagrams, etc.) communicate details about the subject matter? How do photographs and paintings compare? Would photos taken in the wild provide a more accurate view of gorilla life than photos taken in a zoo?
Caitlin O’Connell and Donna M. Jackson’s The Elephant Scientist (Houghton Mifflin, 2011; Gr 4-8) provides an overview of these majestic beasts as well as an intriguing look at how researchers work in the field and the process of scientific investigation. Fueled by the exhilaration of discovery, the well-written text describes how O’Connell, a scientist studying elephants in Namibia’s Etosha National Park, first observed a matriarch display a particular behavior: coming to a sudden stop, leaning on her front feet, and flattening her trunk on the ground. Could it be that these “giant mammals were sending and receiving messages through the ground…talking—and listening—to one another with their feet?”
This observation, and many others, supported by careful research, experimentation, collaboration with other scientists, and field studies, eventually resulted in major breakthroughs in the area of elephant behavior and communication, information that can be used to help us better understand what these “animals need not only to survive but to thrive.” Details about envisioning, designing, and implementing particular experiments are just as fascinating as insights about elephant physiology and social interactions. Budding scientists will be inspired by O’Connell’s career path (her passion for science began with frog watching at a local pond) and informed by descriptions of life in the field (setting up camp, working with park rangers and local villagers, identifying particular elephants, etc.). Photos taken by the scientists provide visual details as well as an aura of on-the-scene excitement.
Melissa Gish’s Rhinoceroses (Creative Education, 2012; Gr 4-8), part of the “Living Wild” series, introduces the second-largest land mammal in the world. The informative text covers the basics—various rhino species, habitat, physical characteristics, behavior, mating and reproduction, conservation issues and efforts, etc. Ranging from a close-up shot of a rhino’s textured skin to a full-page image of two critters doing battle, to a portrait of a mother and her calf, the full-color photographs effectively illustrate the text.
The book also provides interesting insights about the history of rhinos in captivity and the ways in which this remarkable creature has been interpreted through works of art, including a huge sculpture by Salvador Dali, Ice Age’s brontops (“prehistoric rhino relatives”), and the supervillain Rhino from The Amazing Spider-Man comic series. Reproductions of several artworks are included, and a folktale from Malaysia about the animal’s origin is appended. Have your students use the book’s detailed index to locate specific facts about the species, or expand your discussion beyond the strictly scientific to discuss the animal’s influence on human culture.
Bring your safari back home with a look at a class of captivating cold-blooded critters that can be found in Africa…or in a nearby park or backyard.
Combining interesting facts, dazzling full-color photos, and endless enthusiasm for his subject matter, Nic Bishop provides a tantalizing overview of Lizards (Scholastic, 2010; Gr 2-5). The lively narrative introduces broad saurian characteristics and lifestyles, points out ways that these creatures differ from mammals, and reveals an astoundingly varied spectrum of species, each adapted to its particular environment. Specific examples in both text and image add detail and aid in comprehension (for example, a description of how lizards move in deserts highlights two African species, web-footed geckos, which “have feet like snowshoes to clamber across powdery sand,” and shovel-snouted lizards, which “hop from one foot to the other, trying to keep them off the hot surface”).
Artfully composed and crystal clear, the close-up photos include portraits of a bearded dragon hatching from an egg, an aptly named flying dragon gliding between trees, a veiled chameleon snagging its prey with tongue outstretched to almost a foot, and a basilisk sprinting across the water’s surface (Bishop provide fascinating background on how he got this breathtaking shot). Deftly melding words and images, this superb work is equally useful for research, browsing, and sharing aloud in the classroom.
Packed with the author’s full-color photos and eye-rolling jokes, Sneed B. Collard III’s Most Fun Book Ever about Lizards (Charlesbridge, 2012; Gr 3-6) conveys a wealth of solid information in a delightfully chatty and extremely readable narrative style. For example, Sneed explains that Gila monsters, desert-dwellers, spend most of their time in underground burrows, allowing them to “avoid extremely hot and cold temperatures—and to keep the glare off their television screens while they watch reruns of Saurian Idol.” A detailed index makes it easy to locate particular facts about habitat, movement, mating, etc., and sections also cover topics such as “Lizard Troubles” (dangers posed by habitat destruction, hunting, and introduced predators) and the realities and responsibilities of keeping these creatures as pets.
Written and illustrated with a lighthearted touch, What to Expect When You’re Expecting Hatchlings: A Guide for Crocodilian Parents (and Curious Kids) (Millbrook, 2012; Gr 1-4) presents an informative look at this family of reptiles (which includes alligators, crocodiles, caimans, and gharials) while thoroughly entertaining readers. Bridget Heos’s tongue-and-cheek text is presented in question-and-answer format, as she provides basic info to prospective (and be-scaled) parents, with only one condition: “don’t eat the book!”
Topics covered include choosing a nesting site, laying and protecting a clutch of eggs, development of babies inside the shell, hatching, and caring for offspring. Showcasing a cast of charismatic crocodilians engaging in humorously personified behaviors—proffering baby gifts, sucking pacifiers, knitting by a waterhole while youngsters frolic, leaving home with luggage, courting with a bouquet of flowers—Stéphane Jorisch’s colorful cartoon artwork is laugh-out-loud funny, but also conveys interesting facts (a mother carrying her hatchlings in her mouth, or a look at an embryo over time). This colorful volume makes a fun choice for sharing aloud, reading alone, basic reptile research, or inspiring further study.
Grab your students’ attention and tickle their funny bones with these three exceptionally reader-friendly informational texts. Use these books to introduce a diverse and always fascinating animal group, make comparisons between mammals and reptiles, and stir up interest in investigating the natural world.
The activities suggested above reference the following Common Core State Standards:
R.I. 1.9 Identify basic similarities and differences between two texts on the same topic (e.g., in illustrations, descriptions, or procedures)
R.I. 2.6 Identify the main topic of a text, including what the author wants to answer, explain, or describe.
SL. 3.2 Determine the main ideas and supporting details of a text read aloud or information presented in diverse media and formats, including visually, quantitatively, and orally.
RI. 3.7 Use information gained from illustrations…and the words in a text to demonstrate understanding of the text.
R.I. 3.9 Compare and contrast the most important points and key details presented in two texts on the same topic.
RI.4.2 Determine the main idea of a text and explain how it is supported by key details. Ask and answer such questions as who, what, where, when, why, and how to demonstrate understanding of key details in a text.
RI. 5.5 Compare and contrast the overall structure…of events, ideas, concepts, or information in two or more texts.
W 5.7 Conduct short research projects that use several sources to build knowledge through investigation of different aspects of a topic.
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