Small Wonders: Investigations in Nature

Three new informational titles incorporating vivid visuals, imagination-stirring poetry, and personal perspective, emphasize the exhilaration of discovery.
With a focus on looking closely at common creatures, these new informational titles for middle graders encourage kids to get outside and explore. Incorporating vivid visuals, imagination-stirring poetry, and personal perspective into solid presentations of facts, these volumes cultivate curiosity and emphasize the exhilaration of discovery. Use them to inform and inspire future scientists, artists, poets, and earthkeepers.

Witness Amazing Metamorphoses

As visually stunning as it is informative, Joyce Sidman’s The Girl Who Drew Butterflies (HMH, Feb. 2018; Gr 5-8) offers a mesmerizing look at the life and accomplishments of Maria Sibylla Merian (1647-1717), a talented artist, self-taught entomologist, pioneering naturalist, and woman ahead of her times. Born in Frankfurt, Germany, young Maria spent much of her childhood gathering flowers and capturing insects as models for her stepfather’s still-life paintings, all the while wondering about the origins of these fascinating creatures. Considered “evil vermin” by her neighbors, did insects truly develop via “spontaneous generation” from “dew, dung, dead animals, or mud” as commonly believed? Did butterflies, called “summer birds,” fly in from other locales? Maria thought not, and, at age 13, initiated her own study of silkworm caterpillars, closely scrutinizing, describing in words and sketches, and marveling over each stage of transformation. This would be the first in many investigations of the metamorphosis, habitat, and diet of numerous species of moths and butterflies. Despite the social conventions of her times (as a female, she was “forbidden from training as either a scholar a master artist”), Merian’s insatiable curiosity, knack for meticulous observation, and appreciation for the big-life picture of these small creatures led her to a lifetime of study, adventuring, and discovery. Sidman presents an insightful and absorbing look at this naturalist, clearly introducing her struggles and accomplishments while also providing elucidating historical context. Quotes from Merian’s journals are sprinkled throughout, as are handsome, large-size reproductions of her botanical illustrations. Also included are modern-day photos of insects that not only inform readers about the subject matter, but also illuminate the incredible realism and shimmering vibrancy of Merian’s paintings. Sidman pays homage to her subject in thoughtful ways. From Merian’s birth to death, each chronological chapter is cleverly titled after a phase of a butterfly’s metamorphosis (“Egg,” “Hatching,” “First Instar,” etc.) and begins with a crisp photo of an insect in that particular stage and short descriptive poem, effectively and inventively expressing the intersection between art and science that defined Merian’s life and legacy. This beautifully crafted work will inspire young naturalists and nurture those who love to look closely at the magnificent mysteries of the everyday world.

Become a Citizen Scientist

Blending crisp full-color photos with accessible text, Rebecca E. Hirsch explains how modern-day citizen scientists of all ages are helping researchers solve the mystery of why The Monarchs Are Missing (Millbrook, Jan. 2018; Gr 3-7). This engaging book grabs readers right from the introduction, which describes a butterfly soaring over a Pennsylvania field filled with goldenrod on a warm September afternoon. Nearby, Joe and Ellie, both 12, work together to carefully net one of these orange-and-black beauties, record its sex, and place a sticker on its wing, before returning it to the wild—and its amazing journey. Each fall, millions of monarchs migrate from across the eastern United States and Canada to Mexico, traveling up to 3,000 miles—“quite a feat for a creature that flies on paper-thin wings and weighs about as much as a raisin.” Data collected in the field by these youngsters and others will be used by scientists to investigate why monarch populations have been declining over the past 20 years. In the first chapter, Hirsch discusses how scientists first tracked the mysterious eastern monarch migration (a decades-long effort entailing the development of workable butterfly tagging, tracking by volunteers, data collection—by mail, and a motor-home journey through the Mexican countryside); provides a detailed account of this insect’s life cycle and multi-generational journey; and explains how numbers are tracked by measuring winter colonies in the mountains of central Mexico. Next, the author delves into possible causes for the drop in numbers—including changing conditions in their wintering grounds, climate change, loss of milkweed and wildflowers along the migratory pathway, use of pesticides, and more. Emphasizing the ability of this species to “bounce back with big numbers,” a final chapter focuses on actions currently being taken and the ways that ordinary people can help make a difference. Compellingly written, this book provides information about its topic while more broadly addressing how scientists gather information and approach a problem, the interconnectedness of environmental concerns, and the power of individuals to both gather data and bring about change. Kids who want to jump right and help can employ the suggestions for things to do presented in the narrative, or investigate the appended websites detailing how to a plant a butterfly garden or become a citizen scientist.

Dive into the Brown Food Web

Pairing clever poems with snicker-inducing artwork, Leslie Bulion and Robert Meganck get down and dirty to introduce readers to an array of remarkable Leaf Litter Critters (Peachtree, Mar. 2018; Gr 3-7). From bacteria to mites, millipedes, and rove beetles, each selection highlights a different denizen of this “hiding beneath our feet” ecosystem, where mostly microscopic decomposers work tirelessly—“Mixing, shredding,/Sliming, spreading,/…Tunneling, chewing,/Humus-pooing”—to transform dead organic matter into useful nutrients and improve soil quality and structure. Kids learn why “The Mighty Mushroom Is a Fun Guy” (and, with enzymes and acids that can break through tough substances like “dead wood and leaves,” they are “true superheroes of litter decay”); “Watch Out for Bears” (no bigger than a period, the tardigrade, aka water bear, “stays on location/In suspended animation” during times of drought); discover the diet of soil isopods (“This crew can chew the whole night through/In dead leaf demolition,/And then they chew each others’ poo,/For extra-rich nutrition!”); and more. A “Science Note” provides a bit more detail about each featured creature, and aids in deeper comprehension of the poems.The accompanying cartoon-style illustrations manage to balance goofy fun with factual accuracy. The poetry is playful and imaginative, and different styles are used throughout (and carefully explained in the endnotes). Ideas for litter critter investigations and further resources are appended, and will inspire youngsters to get busy collecting, observing, and penning their own science-meets-poetry observations.
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