Sunday, May 10, 2009

A Review of Animal Aha! by Diane Swanson

Most of the nonfiction I read as a child bored me. The only nonfiction books I remember liking were the World Book Encyclopedia, which I sometimes read randomly to entertain myself, and some books called Animals Do the Strangest Things, Birds Do the Strangest Things, and Insects Do the Strangest Things. In fact, I wondered why, if animals and birds and insects were out there doing such strange things, more of the books in the library couldn’t talk about that, instead of what they did say, which seemed like a whole lot of blah-blah to me.

I’m still more hooked on fiction than nonfiction, but I am happy to report that children’s nonfiction has improved tremendously since I was young. Simply having more photos—and having them be in color—is a great start. The advent of the Eyewitness series has also upped the ante. As a teacher, I love bringing those books to my students, especially reluctant readers. Like my childhood encyclopedias, their pocket-sized pieces of text and wonderful photographs draw kids in. I know some have objected to the way they jump around, but then, science is often sold to us in schools as lists of facts, so what’s the difference?

Fortunately, there are alternatives. After you’ve gotten children involved with books like Eye Wonder and Eyewitness, you can introduce them to some books that don’t, in fact, jump around. Another thing I’ve noticed while teaching is that kids are inclined to think of science as a done deal, with all of those facts conquered and ordered and laid out in boxes beneath pins for their perusal. To show them that science is actually ongoing and constantly changing, we need books along the lines of Animal Aha! Thrilling Discoveries in Wildlife Science. Here’s how the introduction puts it:

Scientists work hard to uncover some of the amazing things that animals do. They spend thousands of hours planning experiments, making observations, spotting patterns, and analyzing results. Their efforts call for plenty of patience and loads of persistence. But that all pays off big time when they discover something new—something no one has ever seen before. As you might imagine, finding an AHA in research is a big thrill.
This book has five short chapters, one for each discovery. The discoveries are told in story form, letting young readers share in the scientists’ aha moments. Further facts and explanations and a history of the research leading up to the key observation follow. For example, the first chapter tells about the discovery of a gorilla using tools, adding that previously, among the great apes, only chimpanzees, orangutans, and humans have been seen doing that. In this case, a female gorilla crossing a swampy area in the Congo rainforest was observed breaking off a tree branch and using it, not only to support herself, but to check the depth of the water as she went.

Animal Aha! provides an appealing array of animals and discoveries: we go on to read about elephants looking at themselves in mirrors, dolphins demonstrating simple math skills, parrots speaking with meaning, pythons growing bigger hearts in order to digest their prey, and cockroaches learning better at night than in the morning—kind of like some people. Perhaps most intriguing is finding out how the scientists set up viable experiments for verifying things such as animal thought processes. I especially like the way the elephant research illustrates how a poorly designed experiment can yield inaccurate results: Earlier attempts to find out if elephants could recognize that they were being reflected in mirrors had used smaller mirrors so that elephants could only see their faces. Once scientists offered the pachyderms jumbo-size mirrors, the elephants quickly conducted their own experiments and concluded that they were seeing themselves.

Each chapter in Animal Aha! begins with a small sidebar of summary points titled Fast Facts and includes plenty of nice photos of the subject, some from the actual experiments. Each chapter then ends with a sidebar called Fun Facts. The book has an index, as well. My two favorite Fun Facts are “Like your fingerprints, a gorilla’s noseprints are unique” and “An elephant’s ear can weight as much as a slim woman, about 50 kilograms (110 pounds).”

Besides offering up active science about intriguing topics, Animal Aha! is written in a friendly, clear way at a second or third grade level. Diane Swanson is apparently the author of many other nonfiction books, so I’ll be keeping an eye out for them. For now, I am happy to report that animals are still doing the strangest things!

1 comment:

Charlotte said...

I liked that same non-fiction series very much too. I vaugly feel that if I had been given more non-fiction to read I would have read it, possibly with enjoyment (I also had a book about the life of Nelson that I read repeatedly, for instance), but all they ever gave me was fiction...sigh.