Monthly Archives: January 2022

The Latest in Science

We are naturally curious, and for human beings, to live is to learn. Children are especially ready to learn new things, and our world is full of wonder. Science can be about creating the latest technology or discovering ancient mysteries, and children’s science books should nurture their natural curiosity and help to develop the next generation of brilliant minds. Here are three new books that will do just that.

Pando: A Living Wonder of Trees, by Kate Allen Fox. Illustrated by Turine Tran

When we think of the largest living things in the world, we probably think of blue whales or redwood trees. Another giant is Pando, a 12,000-year-old quaking aspen grove that is completely connected underground and covers 106 acres in Utah. There are 47,000 trees, all clones, comprising one organism. Development is currently shrinking the grove, though, and author Fox helps kids to understand the dangers. The paintings that fill each page shimmer in pale yellow and gold, brown and green. Back matter includes photographs, a glossary, a bibliography, and suggestions about how children can help preserve this natural wonder.

The Message: The Extraordinary Journey of an Ordinary Text Message, written and illustrated by Michael Emberley

A young boy in Australia sends a text to his mom, who is on a trip to Ireland. Click, click, click, tap! And it’s off. Where does it go, and how does it get from one phone to another across the earth in just seconds? This is a phenomenally informative and child-friendly book that taught me so much! I really thought that text messages went from cell tower to cell tower, but the answer is much more complicated than that. Emberley also shows how our brains interpret writing and how our hands interact with glass screens. Although it is in picture book format with full-page color illustrations, this title is on a mid- to upper-elementary level with details about glass fibers in the ocean and salt channels in the body. The inside back cover offers even more information, along with suggested books and websites for further exploration. Fantastic.

Inside In: X-Rays of Nature’s Hidden World, by Jan Paul Schutten. Photography by Arie van ‘t Riet

Who would think of x-rays as fine art? Arie van ‘t Riet was able take home an old x-ray machine from the hospital where he worked, and he spent years perfecting his images of objects as hard as a turtle shell and as soft as a flower petal. He sometimes flipped the image so that the bones were dark and the soft tissue was light or transparent. He staged them against various backgrounds: black, white, or colorful. The animals came to him as roadkill or friends’ dead pets, which sounds repugnant, but in this way, he was able to gather specimens of all kinds of animals without harming anything. Author Schutten has gathered the animals into classifications and added explanations and descriptions that elevate these pictures into a fascinating educational experience. This title is on a higher level than the two books reviewed above, probably upper elementary through early teen, because of the scientific nature of the text. However, younger siblings will be absorbed in the eerie beauty of the x-rays. Schutten begins with mollusks and arthropods, such as scorpions and bumblebees, and ends with mammals, including a hedgehog and a squirrel monkey. Back matter includes a story about the inventor of the x-ray machine and an extensive index. Unique.

Disclaimer: I read library copies of these books. Opinions expressed are solely my own and may not reflect those of my employer or anyone else.

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These Precious Days, by Ann Patchett

Ann Patchett is one our greatest living writers, and her novels have won copious awards. She is also prolific, and always seems to have a new novel in the works. However, when the pandemic took over our lives in 2020, Patchett realized that—like many of us— she did not have the mental bandwidth for an extended project, but she found solace in short memoirs and essays. Some of the selections in this volume have appeared in a different form in the past, but some are new, including the longest piece in the book, the title story.

Patchett’s topics vary widely, from a clear-eyed tribute to her three fathers—one biological and two stepfathers—to another generous piece about growing up with an exceptionally beautiful mother. There are references to becoming a bookstore owner, being inducted into the American Academy of Arts and Letters, and an address to the Association of Graduate School Deans. As a children’s librarian, I found her essay about reading Kate DiCamillo’s books to be especially heartwarming. It was like having two of my best friends meet for the first time and discover that they really like each other.

I read her piece about her husband’s exploits as a pilot out loud to my husband, and we both enjoyed it thoroughly. We both laughed at the funny parts, but I think I understood her distress about his safety more than David did. Her story entitled, “How Knitting Saved My Life. Twice,” hit a deep chord. She related how she had learned to knit as a child, but never appreciated it as much as when a close friend died recently. I learned to knit just a few years ago when I knit a blanket for my first grandson, who then died. My second project was an extravagant shawl for myself, far beyond my skills and with yarn I couldn’t afford. I made a mistake about halfway through and left it in, because there are some scars that never disappear. Knitting saved my life, too.

Ann Patchett is blessed with many good friends, and she writes funny and loving stories about them. Her title story relates how she came to know Tom Hanks, and how he later agreed to narrate the audiobook of her beautiful novel The Dutch House (reviewed here). Through a series of coincidences, Hanks’ assistant, Sookie, came to live with Ann and her physician husband in Nashville while she underwent clinical trials to treat pancreatic cancer just as the pandemic shut everything down. The memoir explores the discomfort of sharing spaces with a virtual stranger, the desire to do good when good is hard to discern, and the anguish of the terminally ill when they are forbidden to say goodbye to loved ones.

Although very little of this collection is about the pandemic, it is perfect reading when our thinking is scattered and we need books that don’t require an extended attention span. All of the pieces are written in Patchett’s exquisite style that won the PEN/Faulkner Award and made her a Pulitzer Prize finalist. Of course, if you’re tucked in for the winter, you can’t do better than The Dutch House, Bel Canto, State of Wonder, or any of her other brilliant novels.

Highly recommended.

Disclaimer: I read an advance reader copy of this book, which is now available to the public. Opinions expressed are solely my own and may not reflect those of my employer or anyone else.

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Leaving Church, by Barbara Brown Taylor

Barbara Brown Taylor became a priest in the Episcopal Church in the years when few women thought of such things. She became a clergyperson in Atlanta, where she was worn out by the constant demands of urban church life. Eventually, she admitted to herself that her marriage had been on the back burner for so long that it was cold and her heart had become numb toward those to whom she was ministering. All the while, she had been expending all of her energy in performing the good deeds that were expected of her. She couldn’t remember her spiritual passion.

Barbara found a new position in charming Clarkesville, Georgia. The tiny, historic church building spoke to her, and after she and her husband had been there for a few years, they built a home in the gentle mountains nearby. The challenges of a small, rural congregation are different from a city parish: more intimate, but often claustrophobic. Over the years, Barbara won many accolades for her preaching and writing, and the congregation grew exponentially, to the point that she and her assistant were holding several services each Sunday and talking about a building program. After finding herself frazzled and exhausted again, Barbara began to question the role of the church. Was this what Jesus intended for his followers? For that matter, was she even making disciples for Jesus? After many years of dedicated service, Barbara decided to leave her position. Since the Episcopal church advises their separated priests not to visit their former churches, and Barbara and her husband wanted to stay in their beloved home, she left the church entirely.

Despite the title, most of this volume is more of a memoir of Ms. Taylor’s years as a priest, and she only comes to the questions about faith, the Bible, and the modern church in the last part of the book. After leaving the priesthood, she became a religion professor at a university nearby, and she approached spiritual studies with a wide-open point of view. Her husband had always been a spiritual adventurer, and he once invited some local tribes to use their property for a multi-day religious observance. Barbara began her questioning with that experience, and then she committed to acquainting her students with world religion in ways that they would not typically encounter in rural Georgia.

David and I lived in northern Georgia for a number of years, and we often spent Saturday afternoons strolling through the antique shops of Clarkesville. I now know that Ms. Taylor was priest at Grace-Calvary Church during that same time period in the 1990s. Although the book cuts off very shortly after she left Grace-Calvary, she has gone on to write many others that continue her story and delve more deeply into the issues. I was surprised to discover that I already own two other books by Barbara Brown Taylor, the newest in my teetering pile of to-be-read titles and another, older title on my bookshelves. Clearly, I need a cataloger. Taylor’s approach to life is so thoughtful and her writing so accessible that I will surely move her other books to a higher spot on the list.

A moving and candid memoir by a woman of faith.

Disclaimer: I own a copy of this book. Opinions expressed are solely my own.

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