Nature Books for Kids
Biomass: Fueling Change
Generating Wind Power
Harnessing Power From the Sun
Hydrogen: Running on Water
By Niki Walker, Crabtree Publishing, 32 pages/$8.95 each (9–14)
With wind farms and ethanol pumping stations cropping up nationwide, curious kids are bound to take notice and wonder why. Look no further than Niki Walker’s “Energy Revolution,” a four-book series focusing on alternative energy. Most of the technology we use today is powered by nonrenewable fossil fuels, such as oil and coal. When burned, they release greenhouse gases that contribute to climate change and acid rain, writes Walker. Her in-depth probing of wind, biomass, hydrogen, and the sun explains how these renewable fuel sources can help solve our energy crisis. In Harnessing Power From the Sun, for example, she mentions the possibility of shingles and window coatings containing rechargeable solar cells. Plentiful photographs drive home Walker’s points. An elephant drinking from a reservoir created by a nearby pump shows the way wind power can provide water for dry regions, and a simple diagram of a fuel cell demonstrates how hydrogen can charge a cell phone. Tip boxes recommend easy conservation ideas (like turning off lights and using mass transportation), and “case studies” offer hopeful examples of places where alternative fuels are already being used. (The Debs Park Audubon Center was the first building in Los Angeles to run entirely on solar power, in 2003.) At the same time Walker is careful to mention the obstacles and disadvantages to developing and employing these new technologies. For instance, a higher demand for crops used to make biofuels can lead to, among other things, soil erosion. A central theme is that there is no silver bullet when it comes to solving our fuel dilemma. “In the future, the world’s energy needs will be met by a number of energy sources,” writes Walker. “Making the switch from fossil fuels to other energy sources will require planning, time, money, and new attitudes”—a switch that today’s children will ultimately have to undertake.—Julie Leibach
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The Puzzle of the Platypus and Other Explorations of Science in Action
By Jack Myers/Illustrated by John Rice, Boyds Mills Press, 64 pages, $17.95 (9–12)
As chief science editor at the beloved magazine Highlights for Children, Jack Myers—known by staffers as “Uncle Jack”—spent a half-century searching for the “best” stories to share with young readers. The Puzzle of the Platypus honors Myers’s memory by collecting 11 of his articles on scientists who have unveiled intriguing mysteries of the animal world. Why do macaws eat clay? Myers describes how scientist James Gilardi found the answer: The birds nosh on seeds containing toxins that can be poisonous. A simple experiment showed him that macaws had less of those toxins in their blood if they also ate clay. In addition, Myers highlights a research team that discovered how to locate denning polar bears to protect them from oil drilling: Nesting bears give off heat. By mounting an infrared videocamera on a helicopter and aiming it at the ground, the team picked up bright areas indicative of “warm spots” in the snow where polar bears were hidden. “Infrared video gives a practical way to find and avoid dens and help polar bears live with people,” Myers explains. John Rice’s clever watercolor illustrations, which interweave cartoons with more realistic representations, complement Myers’s storytelling; together, they’ll encourage youngsters to search for—and perhaps solve—more animal puzzles.—Julie Leibach
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The following puzzles were adapted from The Puzzle of the Platypus.
With its ducklike bill, webbed feed, and tail like a paddle, the platypus might seem like a hybrid of various types of animals. So what, exactly, is it?
Researchers studying the animal throughout the 1800s knew that the platypus had organs that were similar to the milk-producing mammary glands that mammals have. But they also learned that the animal had a cloaca, which is a single opening that birds use for both excretion and egg-laying.
Finally, in 1884, Dr. William Caldwell took on the platypus puzzle. He found a breeding female and discovered that her eggs started to develop even before they were laid. Using this information, along with the other facts they had collected, scientists “placed the platypus in a special group of mammals, the monotremes (‘one-opening’ animals),” writes Jack Myers in Puzzle of the Platypus. “This just says that of all the classes of animals, the platypus is most like the mammals. Then it says that they are different from other mammals in having only one opening in the body cavity.”
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Cliff swallows build their nests out of mud on the faces of rock cliffs, as well as on barns, houses, and highway bridges. But despite having so many places to choose from, they still opt to set up house near one another, forming colonies. Why?
One couple decided to find out. For more than 25 years Dr. Charles Brown and his wife, Mary, have been studying cliff swallows, and they have a study site in Nebraska consisting of more than 150 colonies. Using ladders, flashlights, and mirrors to get close to the nests, and by identifying the birds with leg bands, the Browns and their students have learned a lot about cliff swallow lifestyle.
They learned that cliff swallows eat flying insects, particularly those found in swarms. When their chicks hatch, parents spend most of the day flying back and forth tracking down food and delivering it to their hungry young. By watching their neighbors, parent swallows can see which birds come back empty-beaked and which ones return with provisions; by following the latter to their hunting site, parents can be assured of bringing supper home for their own chicks. Writing in The Puzzle of the Platypus, Jack Myers notes that Dr. Brown called the colony “an information center because it allows birds to pool information to help everyone.”
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Face to Face With Caterpillars
By Darlyne A. Murawaski, National Geographic Society, 32 pages, $16.95 (6-9)
What looks fuzzy and orange, has multiple legs, and can climb like a primate? The answer is easy if you know your caterpillars—it’s the monkey slug caterpillar from Costa Rica, whose spiderlike appendages detach if it’s attacked by a predator. Losing limbs is a useful defense—and just one of many that these creatures use to survive, as biologist and nature photographer Darlyne A. Murawaski shows in Face to Face With Caterpillars. She details other compelling aspects of caterpillars’ life cycles, too, including what they eat and how they turn into butterflies and moths. Vivid color photographs taken while Murawaski was on assignment for National Geographic will have kids gasping at the intricacies of these creepy crawlies. For example, a close-up of an eastern tent caterpillar dangling from a silken strand reveals a corona of wispy, hairlike tendrils. Murawaski’s book provides a healthy sampling of 17,000 species of butterflies and 145,000 species of moths that spend the early part of their lives without wings. “Searching for caterpillars is like a treasure hunt,” she writes. Her book is bound to have kids seeking their own rare gems.—Julie Leibach
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