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April 15, 2014

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Getting High: These incredible stories will catapult kids to surprising new heights | Nonfiction Booktalker

I’m not interested in extinct birds. Or Mars rovers. I’m marginally intrigued by Mohawk ironworkers. But give me a really good book on those topics, and I’m hooked.

Phillip Hoose can get me engrossed in anything, even Moonbird: A Year on the Wind with the Great Survivor B95 (Farrar, 2012). B95, a four-ounce red knot shorebird, was captured and tagged in 1995, and that tag became his name. Athletes would be awed by his stamina; every year B95 flies from the tip of Argentina to the Canadian Arctic and back—9,000 miles of hurricanes, near-starvation, and predators. He has logged enough miles to reach the Moon (and more than half way back!). Hence the nickname “Moonbird.”

Hoose has filled his book with flocks of excellent photos. But the author also notes that it’s getting harder for these fliers to survive. Humans encroach on the shores where the birds find food and shelter. Plus, the climate is changing, affecting where the birds locate appropriate nesting grounds. Since B95 was tagged, more than 80 percent of these birds have disappeared. So here’s a question to ask your booktalk group: Has B95 disappeared, too? Google it for a real high!

I was stopped cold when I read David Weitzman’s Skywalkers: Mohawk Ironworkers Build the City (Roaring Brook, 2011). I had an aha! moment when I learned about the connection between steam locomotives and ironworkers. Of course, trains are built of iron, but they also need tracks. And bridges.

In 1886, construction began on the Victoria Bridge across the St. Lawrence River, between Montreal and the United States. This same area was home to the survivors of the Mohawks. Two hundred years earlier, much of the Mohawk population had been wiped out by smallpox. The proud nation that had once covered most of New England was now confined along the U.S.-Canada border.

The Mohawks were in the right place at the right time. Their land, and the stone on it, was needed to build the bridge. And when the Indians impressed everyone with their fearlessness walking in high places, they were hired as workers, which ultimately brought them to New York City as laborers on the early skyscrapers. They made a good living doing something that terrified others. I still get a shiver looking at those photographs, and so will your audience.

You can’t get much higher than outer space. Elizabeth Rusch’s The Mighty Mars Rovers: The Incredible Adventures of Spirit and Opportunity (Houghton, 2012) starts firmly planted on Earth with 13-year-old Steve Squyres watching the 1969 Moon landing. There are photos of him as a kid with his first telescope, building a robot, and standing on top of a mountain. Squyres had no idea that these hobbies would become his life’s work. But instead of looking down at rocks—he wanted to be a geologist—he’d be looking up at rocks, 40 million miles away!

In 1976, Squyres was gripped by the photos beamed from the Mars Viking landers. He wanted to pick up the rocks he saw, turn them over, feel their weight. Unfortunately, neither of the landers could move after touching down.

So Squyres proposed that NASA fund a Mars “rover,” a machine that would take photos as it moved, picking things up and examining them thoroughly as it sent data back to Earth. When NASA finally agreed, they decided on two rovers. Their task: build a device that could survive a blast-off, fly through space for months, land safely, and then fully function.

Amazingly, they did just that. Planned to work for only three months, one of them is still going—it’s been on Mars for almost nine years.

Fifth graders are fascinated by these incredible stories. They’re even more amazed with my admission that I believed they wouldn’t be interested. We can’t all know everything, but we shouldn’t let our ignorance stop us from making connections and discoveries. And like the red knot shorebird, we can all soar, year after year after year.


Kathleen Baxter is the former head of children’s services at the Anoka County Library in suburban Minneapolis, a BER presenter, and a popular speaker at school and library conferences.

About Kathleen Baxter

Kathleen Baxter is the former head of children’s services at the Anoka County Library in suburban Minneapolis and a speaker at school and library conferences all over the USA. She never goes anywhere without a book.

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