Sunday, May 10, 2009

A Review of Secret of the Singing Mice...and More! by Ana Maria Rodriguez

Secret of the Singing Mice has one of the coolest titles ever, but how does it compare to Animal Aha? The books are very similar in design, actually. This one also presents five cases of animal research in five small chapters. The title chapter is especially compelling. Like bats, whales, certain insects, and a few other rodents, mice make some sounds that are so high-pitched humans can’t hear them. These songs are produced by male mice when they meet female mice, and scientists recorded them and were able to play them back and analyze them at a lower decibel. To their surprise, they found out that a mouse’s “love song” isn’t just a single note, but a little pattern—and each male mouse’s song is unique. (I’m picturing American Idol for mice now.)

Three of the five chapters in this book are about animal sounds. Like the mice, Richardson’s ground squirrel sometimes makes ultrasonic noises. The calls are part of the ground squirrel’s repertoire of warning signals, and the book details how scientists figured out when these calls would be advantageous to use—or not, depending on how near a predator might be. The third chapter about animal calls also focuses on an animal that can make ultrasonic noise: bats. It turns out baby bats “babble,” playing with sounds the way human infants experiment with vowels and syllables before learning to make words and sentences.

The two chapters which aren’t about sound give us case studies involving smell and vision. The star-nosed mole is already a bizarre creature, but it turns out to have an intriguing habit discovered by scientist Kenneth Catania: while looking for food underwater, the bat breathes bubbles out of its strange nose to touch potential food in the murky water, then snorts the bubbles back in to check them for smells. The chapter about vision introduces us to a little rodent called the degu that can see ultraviolet light—but what for? The answer has to do with the degu’s urine, which is bright with UV rays!

I was a little thrown by this book’s emphasis on sound in three of the five chapters. Part of me wanted to see a chapter for each of the five senses. But then, describing three sound experiments gives students the opportunity to compare different scientists’ approaches to similar questions, which is certainly valuable.

Singing Mice is written on a second or third grade level. The book offers us various sidebars, though some contain information that could have been worked into the text. I especially liked the idea of sidebars called Meet the Scientists, but was disappointed by their lack of detail. The font size in this book is quite small, which might be overwhelming for reluctant readers. Some chapters seem a little short on photos, as well. I was pleased to discover experiments at the end of the chapters until I realized that only chapters one and five had them. Of course, it would have been nice to see an experiment for each chapter. In addition to an index, Singing Mice provides chapter notes at the end of the book, giving us specific sources for the information in the text. This is not only useful, but is also good modeling for students being asked to document their own report writing. The book is part of a series called Animal Secrets Revealed, and I’m going to try to track down some of the other titles, particularly Secret of the Puking Penguins...And More.

Secret of the Singing Mice gives us a clear picture of how five science teams conduct their animal research. Again, these science stories are powerful examples for students who might not otherwise understand how all those “science facts” they encounter in school are generated. In the midst of recent talk in the news regarding problems with education in the United States, I’ve read that pursuit of careers in the hard sciences is on the wane. Good nonfiction showing kids dynamic, creative science engagement should be part of the solution.

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