April 21, 2018

The Advocate's Toolbox

Otters, Emus, and Sharks, Oh My! | Informational Picture Books To Share

Celebrate Earth Day with a look at some of the planet’s most fascinating and diverse inhabitants. Packed with attention-grabbing kid appeal, these excellent offerings pair lively texts with dynamic visuals to convey information in an engaging manner. Share them aloud to introduce particular species and broad animal studies, raise awareness of important environmental issues, and ignite interest in the natural world.

River Residents
otters love to playFeaturing a trio of irresistible pups, Jonathan London and Meilo So’s aptly titled Otters Love to Play (Candlewick, Mar. 2016; K-Gr 3) grabs its audience with vivacious storytelling. The sparkling narrative summarizes the first year of life as the mother otter nurses her babies in their cozy den (an abandoned and remodeled beaver lodge), teaches them to swim and hunt, protects them from predators, and encourages them to play. The enchanting watercolor paintings show the bright-eyed pups racing and chasing, grabbing a stick for tug-of-war, spinning and swishing “like underwater/acrobats,” frolicking in piles of autumn leaves, and “belly-slid[ing] down a snowbank.” Throughout, smaller-font text provides more factual content about habitat, diet, physical characteristics, and the purpose for all of this play—to develop the speed and agility needed for hunting and strengthen family ties (and have fun, of course!). The book’s seasonal framework, handsomely reflected in the artwork, gives youngsters a clear idea of the otters’ life cycle. A fun, frisky, and fact-filled read-aloud.

build, beaver, buildSandra Markle and Deborah Hocking’s Build, Beaver, Build! (Millbrook, Mar., 2016; K- Gr 4) focuses on the first two years in the life of a kit. Detailed paintings in deep greens and blues set the mostly nocturnal scene as the “softball-sized” three-week-old gradually matures; he gnaws constantly on cattails and other “tough stuff” to wear down his always-growing front teeth, strengthens muscles by tumbling and wrestling with his siblings, mimics his mother when she builds a territory-marking scent mound, and protects himself from aggressors by hiding—and then when he is larger—slapping his tail on the water to startle them. As the seasons pass, the kit also contributes to the winter food supply (a “tangled mound” of gnawed-off branches stored near the underwater lodge entrance) and learns to repair and lengthen the family dam, a stick-and-mud construction begun long ago and maintained through the years by different family groups. The dusky woodland spreads depict these active creatures and the many ways that they alter their environment, while underwater scenes and cutaways allow youngsters to see beyond the surface.

platypusReaders follow along as a Platypus (Candlewick, Feb., 2016; Gr 1-4) emerges from his burrow beneath a gum tree’s tangled roots, paddles along the river’s surface with webbed feet, and forages for food with his rubbery bill. Sue Whiting integrates facts about this mysterious monotreme (egg-laying mammal) into the lyrical and descriptive text, along with a reader-involving sense of adventure. Additional tidbits are presented in a smaller font, providing further detail about this secretive animal’s diet, habitat, physical characteristics, and uniqueness (“When British scientists first studied a specimen in 1799, it seemed so strange that they thought it was a fake”). Rendered in eucalyptus greens, stone grays, and muddy browns, Mark Jackson’s mixed-media illustrations depict the platypus’s milieu (freshwater rivers and streams in Tasmania and eastern Australia) and the shadow-filled moonlit setting. Loose brush strokes and lithe lines convey the critter’s distinctive appearance (duck-like bill, wide tail like a beaver, “velvety fur”) along with his habitual state of “perpetual motion”—“Hurrying./Scurrying…Always looking for a meal.” Finally, the creature glides past an also-solitary female (a cutaway image provides a glimpse at her burrow and nestlings), before returning to his own cozy hideaway and curling up to sleep as the sun rises. An endnote delivers a few more facts about this unusual creature, including a look at platypus eggs.

Take Wing
circleIn Circle (Candlewick, May, 2016; K-Gr 4), Jeannie Baker describes the amazing globe-spanning migration of the bar-tailed godwit, the longest non-stop journey of any animal. Poetic text and stunning collage illustrations zoom in on a particular bird with white wing patches as he departs an Australian beach to “follow an ancient,/invisible pathway.” Flying nonstop for six days and nights, the flock is ready for food and a rest, but must first locate a “safe stretch of mud” (their familiar stopping grounds in the wetlands of Southeast Asia are disappearing due to human development). Joining a different flock, the traveler continues on to Alaska and his “remembered place,” where he mates and helps to raise a chick (three others are taken by a fox). As the days grow colder, the godwits head south, flying “on and on and on for nine nights and nine days,/without stopping…” until the 7,000-mile return journey is completed. The artwork is both finely detailed and breathtakingly expansive. Depictions of sandy beaches, coral reefs, and Alaskan tundra are rich in varied textures, while pulled-back perspectives portray the changing landscape and curvature of the Earth to demonstrate just how high and how far these birds soar. The story is framed at beginning and end by images of a boy who dreams about flying, making readers feel a part of the action, and the impact of humans on this ancient cycle is made clear in the author’s note. A wonderful platform for launching studies of migrating animals and the importance of protecting habitats.

emuHighlighting another unusual denizen of Australia, Claire Saxby and Graham Byrne introduce a flightless bird that lives in an open eucalyptus forest. After his mate finishes laying eggs and departs, it’s up to the male Emu (Candlewick, 2015; K- Gr 3) to rear their offspring. Gathering the “granite-green eggs” beneath his soft, warm feathers, he remains on his nest for eight weeks until the fledglings hatch. The gangly chicks are gorgeous, adorned with bold chocolate-and-cream striped feathers that provide camouflage in their grasslands habitat, and though they begin to feed themselves immediately, Emu must still provide warmth at night, protect them from predators, and teach them how to survive. The well-written text conveys a good deal of information, expanded by additional facts in smaller print. Featuring an appealingly perky protagonist, the illustrations’ earthy tones and scratchy lines depict these animals and their environment and support the text with visual examples. Occasional shifts in perspective—up-close views or an aerial vista showing a hunting eagle’s shadow and the birds springing across the ground beneath—add both drama and detail. Use this to introduce an unusual bird or to launch discussion of other species in which fathers are caretakers.

OWLSLaurence Pringle and Meryl Henderson introduce a variety of Owls! (Boyds Mills, Mar., 2016; Gr 2-6) and their way of life. Written in a conversational tone, the text provides a brief history of how these “ghost birds” have been viewed by various cultures before delving into habitat, physical characteristics, life cycle, and behavior. From the tiniest (the smaller-than-a-robin desert-dwelling elf owl) to the largest (a tie between the Eurasian eagle owl and the rare Blakiston’s fish owl, both of which can have wingspans over five feet), realistic watercolor images of different species depicted in their natural environs grace the pages (always labeled and often with informative captions that include fascinating type-specific tidbits). Cleanly drawn diagrams and cutaways also help to convey information. Both words and images do an excellent job of explaining how an owl’s body is adapted to its needs: long wing bones to lift and carry body weight plus prey; strong leg and foot bones for hard landings; 14 vertebrae that allow for “remarkable head-turning ability” and compensate for eyes that can’t move; a fourth toe to aid in catching animals; and more. The book ends with a discussion of human impact, both as threateners (deadly cars and trucks, habitat destruction, poisons used for pest control) and admirers.

Dance, Jump, Crawl
salamanderdanceIt’s springtime, and spotted salamanders leave their woodland hideaways to slide into the waters of a recently formed vernal pool. Gathering at the bottom, they perform a Salamander Dance (Wild Iris, April, 2016; K-Gr 4), a courtship behavior that lasts the whole night through. David FitzSimmons’s eloquent text and Michael DiGiorgio’s lush-hued realistic paintings continue to trace the life cycle of these amphibians: the females lay eggs and attach jelly-like sacs to sunken twigs and branches; tiny larvae emerge a month later, breathing through gills and eating small water animals; when the weather warms and the pool begins to dry up, the larvae metamorphose into juveniles—their gills disappear, they grow lungs, their tails thicken, and their legs lengthen and grow stronger. The young salamanders leave the almost-dry pool to find their own secreted burrows, eventually hibernate when snow begins to fall, and, when the weather warms again, “climb from their winter beds and slide silently into the rising waters of their dancing pool.” Concepts and terminology are woven into the lyrical language and briefly and clearly explained, and close-up underwater views alternate with broader and densely detailed depictions of the woodland environment. Further information about vernal pools, spotted salamanders (including photos of amphibian tunnels that help with safe migration), and a glossary are appended.

fabulous frogsMartin Jenkins’s playful text and Tim Hopgood’s bright-hued mixed-media illustrations introduce a sampler of fascinating and Fabulous Frogs (Candlewick, 2015; K-Gr 3). Eye-catching spreads highlight various species deemed noteworthy for their intriguing appearances or behaviors: a “huge” goliath frog from western Africa fills two pages; a South American Darwin’s frog is recognized for his strange pointy nose (and again, later on, for keeping its babies in its throat); Australia’s striped rocket frog leaps from one page to the next (it can jump 16 feet); and African gray tree frogs make a nest of foam for their eggs in the branches above a pond. Throughout, basic frog facts are conveyed, along with enthusiasm for the more than 5,000 kinds that populate the Earth. Seymour Simon’s Frogs (HarperCollins, 2015; Gr 2-5) delves a bit more deeply into the life cycle, senses, habitat, and physical attributes of these amphibians. Perfect for sharing aloud, the well-written narrative presents information lucidly and succinctly, and includes and defines scientific terminology in context. Crisp, large-size photos showing various species in their natural habitats support the text and dazzle the eye. The final pages introduce several temperate zone common frogs, unusual frogs from around the world, and interesting toads, along with reasons for global declines in frog populations.

spidermaniaYoungsters can get up close and personal with arachnids while browsing Alexandra Siy’s Spidermania: Friends on the Web (Holiday House, 2015; Gr 3-6). Throughout, Dennis Kunkel’s spectacular photomicrographs, made with a high-powered scanning electron microscope (SEM) and colorized for clarity, provide glimpses at spiders and their webs many times magnified (species and level of magnification are identified in captions). Both appealingly chatty and fact-packed, the text covers basic spider characteristics while zooming in on particular species and the many different ways that they spin and utilize their webs. The electron micrographs showcase tiny wonders: silk thread emerging from a black widow’s spinnerets (x162); the delicate claws of a cobweb weaver (x1,215); the feathery, super-sensitive-to-vibrations hairs on a wolf spider’s abdomen (x790); the eight eyes of a jumping spider that allow it to see in an almost-180-degree arc while standing still (x72); the silk-gland spigots and silk secretion of the spiny-backed spider (x2,695). Traditional photos of spiders and their webs, also beautifully composed and clearly captioned, provide more striking visuals and size perspective. This mesmerizing offering ends with a call for young citizen scientists to “resist the urge to squash” and instead observe spiders in their world—“in the garden, on a window, behind the couch, atop a lampshade, above the tub, under the bed.” Planning a nature walk? Emily Morgan’s Next Time You See a Spiderweb (NSTA, 2015; K-Gr 5) pairs large-size photos with simple text to introduce various webs and their creators and instill a sense of wonder.

The Mysterious Ocean

Image from Neighborhood Sharks (Roaring Brook) illus. by Katherine Roy

Image from Neighborhood Sharks (Roaring Brook) illus. by Katherine Roy

In Neighborhood Sharks: Hunting with the Great Whites of California’s Farallon Islands (Roaring Brook Pr., 2014; Gr 1-5), Katherine Roy utilizes gripping storytelling and dramatic and realistic watercolor paintings to hook readers. The first few pages describe how the sharks return to their hunting grounds, near San Francisco, every September, “cutting through the waters in total silence” to stalk their unsuspecting prey until ready to strike. The next wordless double-page illustration provides a close-up of a great white breaching the ocean’s surface, an elephant seal clasped in its jagged-toothed jaws, water splashing and swirling all around. Subsequent spreads filled with in-depth factual text, full-page images, and helpful diagrams explore the specifics of these magnificent hunting machines: the thriving pinniped colony that attracts them; a torpedo-shaped body ideal for long-range cruising and attack bursts; a circulatory system that generates the extra body warmth needed for “lightning-fast” reflexes; high-definition vision; an endless supply of teeth that rotate forward; and projectile jaws. Additional spreads describe how scientists study these far-ranging animals, the Farallon food chain, and great white migration habits. Throughout this well-researched book, action scenes (sometimes with a bit of gore) alternate with informational spreads to both generate—and satiate—interest.

octopus scientistsAuthor Sy Montgomery and photographer Keith Ellenbogen take to the field to accompany The Octopus Scientists (2015; Gr 4-8) on an expedition to the island of Moorea in French Polynesia. Vivid writing and crystalline photos (taken above and below the water) chronicle how the two joined psychologist Jennifer Mather and her team to collect hard data about these mysterious and elusive mollusks. It takes much careful looking and perseverance to find the creatures, perching camouflaged on coral or hidden away in a hole, observe and record each specimen’s behavior and location, and identify bits and pieces of already-consumed-animals to pinpoint food sources. Included along with the thorough look at the expedition are interludes that treat octopus intelligence, its ability to change the color and texture of its skin, why coral reefs are called “rainforests of the oceans,” and other topics. Montgomery’s wonderfully descriptive, action-packed, and insightful writing describes science in action with great detail, while making each moment sound like a grand adventure. Share this, or other titles in the outstanding “Scientists in the Field” series (all HMH), aloud with students to inform them and perhaps inspire the next generation of research scientists.

Select two or three of the featured titles and have kids revisit the texts to extract facts about each animal’s physical traits, habitat, diet, and way of life. Make lists to identify similarities and differences. Have students take a closer look at each book’s format and illustrative matter. Why do some texts utilize illustrations while others feature photographs? What methods do different authors and illustrators employ to convey information? What devices (index, subtitles, bolded text, etc.) help to locate particular facts? Have students research an animal of their choice and write and illustrate a brief story. Compile a classroom book of animal tales.

The Common Core State Standards below are a sampling of those referenced in the above books and classroom activities:

Rl 1.1. Ask and answer questions about key details in a text.
RI 1.9 Identify basic similarities and differences between two texts on the same topic (e.g., in illustrations, descriptions, or procedures).
RI 2.6 Identify the main topic of a text, including what the author wants to answer, explain, or describe.
Rl 2.9. Compare and contrast the most important points presented by two texts on the same topic.
Rl 3.7 Use information gained from illustrations…and the words in a text to demonstrate understanding of the text.
RI 3.9 Compare and contrast the most important points and key details presented in two texts on the same topic.
RI 5.5 Compare and contrast the overall structure…of events, ideas, concepts, or information in two or more texts.
RL 5.7. Analyze how visual…elements contribute to the meaning, tone, or beauty of a text.
Rl 1.2. Write information/explanatory texts in which they name a topic, supply some facts about the topic, and prove some sense of closure.
Rl 2.7. Participate in shared research and writing projects.
W 3.7 Conduct short research projects that build knowledge about a topic.
SL 1.2. Ask and answer questions about key details in a text read aloud….

Joy Fleishhacker About Joy Fleishhacker

Joy Fleishhacker is a librarian, former SLJ staffer, and freelance editor and writer who works at the Pikes Peak Library District in southern Colorado.



  1. Highlighting another unusual denizen of Australia, Claire Saxby and Graham Byrne introduce a flightless bird that lives in an open eucalyptus forest”
    I disagree, look at http://deepfork.org/blog/