Last week, I was all set to write my very first participation post for Kid Lit Frenzy’s Nonfiction Picture Book Challenge–and then I discovered that I hadn’t read any nonfiction picture books yet for January! Oops! So I hurried off to the library to remedy that for this week, and I struck reading gold–two absolutely riveting new entries in the excellent Scientists in the Field series published by Houghton Mifflin.
Eruption!: Volcanoes and the Science of Saving Lives, written by Elizabeth Rusch and photographed by Tom Uhlman, focuses on the science of tracking volcanic activity, predicting eruptions, and making decisions about evacuating the millions of people who live near active volcanoes. I learned so much about how volcanoes work in this book, and that alone is fascinating enough that I would have read a whole book just about that. (Pyroclastic flow! I have used that term at least a half dozen times this week. I love learning new words!) But Rusch makes things even more interesting by focusing on the scientists who work not just to study volcanoes but to anticipate natural disasters. She covers a lot of territory in this book, focusing on volcanoes around the world, but the whole story is tightly woven and highly suspenseful. This one is getting Newbery talk, and while I don’t really anticipate seeing it as an Honor for this year, I do think it’s worthy.
And then there is The Tapir Scientist, written and photographed by the brilliant team of Sy Montgomery and Nic Bishop, who have collaborated on several other excellent Scientist in the Field books. I had no idea what a tapir was before I picked up this book. It’s not exactly the most compelling-looking of animals, and fairly little is known about it. I wasn’t really sure how Montgomery was going to make this into a good story. But it’s such a page-turner! Montgomery profiles Pati Medici, a Brazilian scientist who studies tapirs. Medici works in the Pantanal in South America, the largest wetlands in the world, and home to the shy tapir, among many, many other species. Medici is ultimately focused on conservation and biodiversity and is trying to learn more about the important role the tapir plays in the health of the environment. It’s quite a dramatic story, full of tapir drama, near misses, new knowledge, equipment failure, and the compelling personalities of the scientists who devote their lives to this work.
At the end of the book, Montgomery quotes Medici: “My dream is that people everywhere care about tapirs. Otherwise, how will we save our biodiversity?”
And that, for me, expresses so succinctly the importance and beauty of the Scientist in the Field series: these books make readers care about things that we know little or nothing about before we start reading. They highlight the wonder and magnificence of our world, and they make us believe that it’s absolutely vital for the natural world and its species and peoples to survive. It’s hard for me to imagine any child reading The Tapir Scientist who’s not going to want to grow up and be a tapir scientist–or perhaps find another little-known species to study. These books make scientific work seem like the most interesting and natural thing in the world to do. I can’t wait to share these books with my children when they’re a little older.
And also, BABY TAPIRS! Seriously, have you ever seen anything this cute? (Googling “photos of baby tapirs” will make you happy for the rest of the day. I promise!)