February 25, 2010

Enchanting bedtime stories


by Teresa Cárdenas
illustrated by Margarita Sada

When God was a child, he was lonely, so he created a creature to play with. The creature was a cat, whom he called Oloyou. One day, as they were playing, Oloyou lost his balance and fell into Nothing, home of Okún Aró, the Infinite Sea. Oloyou falls in love with the Sea's beautiful daughter, Kandili. Angered by their love, Okún Aró throws them into the heavens, where Kandili becomes the night sky filled with stars. Oloyou is reunited with God, who turns him into a comet who leaps and plays through the night.

by Pat Mora
illustrated by Domi

Startled by the loud whoosh! of her grandfather's blowgun, Luna the Moon tumbles into the ocean and breaks into many pieces. The tiny fish glue her back together with their silvery scales. Whole once more, Luna and her new friends return to the sky where they swim forever in the Milky Way.

by Susana Sanromán
illustrated by Domi

A child is afraid of the dark, so he keeps a nightlight under the bedcovers. But the light keeps him awake until he becomes so tired, he falls asleep. In his dreams, he meets Señora Regañona, who plays with him. He then realizes that there is nothing to fear.

February 23, 2010

A search for identity

Throwaway Daughter
by Ting-Xing Ye (with William Bell)

Grace Parker has always resisted her Chinese roots. Adopted by a Canadian family after she was abandoned at a Chinese orphanage, she doesn't like being reminded of her past. But after seeing televised images of the Tianamen Square massacre, she starts to reconsider her heritage and eventually goes on a journey to find her birth parents. 

Told by Grace, her mother, her parents, and Mrs. Xia, who worked at the orphanage, this is a moving, powerful story of cruelty and courage.

Adventure, Friendship, and Chinese characters

The Pet Dragon
by Christoph Niemann 

A little girl named Lin searches for her missing pet dragon. An enjoyable and creative introduction to Chinese word characters. Each character becomes part of the illustrations, making them easy to remember.

To Share One Moon

A young girl named Niu Niu tells the story of her family's immigration to Canada. But their new lives are different from what they imagined. Their first Moon Festival is quiet and lonely. When Niu Niu becomes homesick, her grandmother tells her the story of Chang-Er, a young woman banished to the moon for not sharing the pearls of everlasting life with her husband. Shortly after the festival, Niu Niu's mother returns to her job in China, while her father tries to find work as a doctor again. Now every time Niu Niu sees a full moon, she thinks of her mother and wonders if her mother thinks of her.

A story with no happy resolutions, either for the family or for Chang-Er. But it is realistic in its depiction of loss and separation. This gentle story is available from Kevin and Robin Books.

February 18, 2010

The many uses of DNA

On February 17th, an article in the Globe & Mail reported that DNA evidence has shown that King Tutankhamen died of malaria and a possible infection from a fractured leg.

There are many uses for DNA, from mapping the human genome to genetic engineering. The following books help shed further light on its mysteries. 

National Geographic Investigates: Genetics: From DNA to Designer Dogs

Chapters: Ancient DNA, Genetic Science, Genes for Long Life, Fighting for Wildlife, Microbial DNA, Genetics and Cloning
An interesting, well-written book, with a nice, clear layout. Includes a list of further resources (books and websites) and full-colour photographs.

Kingfisher Knowledge Genes and DNA

Chapters: Genes and Inheritance, DNA: The Molecule of Life, Genetic Technology

Each chapter ends with a summary and a list of further resources. Also mentions possible careers. Well organized, with large, easy-to-read fonts, and lots of illustrations and photos.

Amazing DNA

Chapters: DNA is Everywhere, Building Bodies, Making Copies, From Plants to Proteins, How Genes Build Us, Mistakes: Bad & Good

This book is very easy to read and understand. Suitable for ages 8 - 11.

Chapters: The Master Molecule of Life, Genes & DNA, The Genetic Code, RNA & the Protein Factory, Making Use of DNA
A more scientific look at DNA, including a description of how DNA fingerprints are created. With clear diagrams and photographs, although the captions are too far away. For ages 10 and up.

For readers interested in how the structure of DNA was discovered, see Watson and Crick and DNA, by Christy Marx, and Double Helix: The Quest to Uncover the Structure of DNA, by Glen Phelan.

February 16, 2010

Hawkings should stick to lectures

George's Secret Key to the Universe
by Lucy & Stephen Hawking

George's parents dislike technology so much that they don't own a phone, a television, or a computer. So naturally, George is fascinated by his next door neighbours Eric and his daughter, Annie, and their superintelligent computer Cosmos. Cosmos can open a portal into space, allowing the kids to hitch rides on comets and asteroids. When a mad scientist steals Cosmos and traps Eric in a black hole, George and Annie have to rescue him.  
It sounds exciting, and there are some impressive photographs of planets and stars, but the story is very poorly written. There are too many superfluous and extraneous details, awkward phrasing, puzzling situations, and condescending characters. A few chapters could have been eliminated altogether since they don't advance the plot in any way.  

Interspersed with the narrative are well-written explanations of the solar system, which made me wonder why the Hawkings didn't write a nonfiction book instead. There is also an excellent chapter about black holes. That one chapter (out of 32), called What You Need to Know about Black Holes, is exactly how the book should have been written. 
The climax has George winning a science competition (he receives a standing ovation!) by giving an speech. I strongly suspect that the Hawkings have never been to an actual science fair. 
Extremely disappointing. And the mad scientist didn't get a proper comeuppance either!

This time, George and Annie follow mysterious clues that may lead them to an alien life form. Slightly better than the first book because it includes essays about space travel and the search for extraterrestrial life.
Unfortunately, the treasure hunt comes to a dissatisfying end. The clues were written by the mad scientist, who was trying to exact revenge because Annie's father had interfered with his research and had made false accusations about him. Annie gets her father to apologize, which he does very grudgingly.
In fact, the adults in both books are not portrayed very positively. One wonders if Hawking has a dislike for teachers or fellow scientists. Whatever the reason, it's not going to leave kids with a very good impression. 
In an epilogue, Hawking says that the most exciting treasure hunt of all is the understanding of the Universe and everything in it. A nice message trapped in a not-very-good book.

February 11, 2010

Valentine's Day not just about romance

Royal Murder: The Deadly Intrigue of Ten Sovereigns
by Elizabeth MacLeod

Cleopatra, Vlad the Impaler (aka Dracula), Marie Antoinette, and the Romanov family are among the profiles of murdering sovereigns and murdered royals. Full of gory details and intriguing facts, Royal Murder will attract readers who are interested in politics, mystery, and horror.  Includes bibliography and index.

Nice change from vampire romances

For a more substantial read than a lightweight vampire romance, give your teen an historical romance by Philippa Gregory. She is an excellent writer who creates wonderfully exciting stories that are hard to put down.

The Constant Princesstells the story of Catalina, Princess of Spain, who has been raised since infancy to become queen of England. With the death of her husband, Arthur, the only way that she can achieve her goal is to marry Arthur's younger brother, Henry. Relying on faith, intelligence, and a sense of destiny, Catalina transforms herself from princess to Queen Katherine. A compelling, unforgettable read.

Slightly dull history

A Proud Taste for Scarlet and Miniver
by e.l. konigsburg

Eleanor of Aquitaine is in Heaven, waiting to learn if her second husband, King Henry II, will be able to join her. With Eleanor are Henry's mother, Matilda-Empress, William the Marshall, and Abbot Suger. To pass the time, they each tell a part of Eleanor's life, beginning when she became Queen of France.  

The main problem with this novel is perspective and voice. The three people telling Eleanor's story are merely observers. They do not take an active part in the story's events. It creates distance, making it difficult to wholly enter Eleanor's world. Even when we finally hear from Eleanor herself, it reveals very little. She only provides an unemotional summary of her deeds after Henry's death. Not very satisfying.

February 9, 2010

Slavery in Cuba

by Teresa Cárdenas

Perro Viejo has been a slave his entire life. His only memories of the past 50 years are of work, cruelty, fear and sadness. He can't even remember his real name. Now Perro Viejo is tired. He often imagines his own death or of going far, far away. But then Beira insists that they help Aísa, a ten-year-old runaway slave, escape.

A moving story of the inhumanity of slavery.

Teen migrants

by Ann Jaramillo

Miguel's parents emigrated to California six years ago, leaving him with his grandmother in San Jacinto. Now it's his turn to cross la línea (the border), but his plans are disrupted when his sister, Elena, decides to follow him. Together, they embark on a perilous journey - hopping freight trains, avoiding the militia, and almost perishing in the desert. 

In just 125 pages, Ann Jarmillo manages to convey the desperation and longing of many migrants, often just children and teens, trying to reunite with their families. The final chapter poignantly reveals that sometimes, wishes and dreams are bittersweet.

For a true-life perspective, see the excellent and thoughtful documentary Which Way Home on CBC's Passionate Eye.

February 4, 2010

For aspiring crime scene investigators

These books should appeal to fans of CSI and those who want to become forensic scientists.

Crime Scene: True-Life Forensic Files #1: Dusting and DNA

Using actual cases as examples, readers are guided through the crime solving process, focussing on the importance of fingerprints and DNA evidence.

Three possible murder cases reveal how insects help forensic entomologists determine the time of death. With close-up pictures of various bugs such as maggots, flies, and pupal casings.

Title is terribly misleading

Can it Really Rain Frogs: The World's Strangest Weather Events
by Spencer Christian (former Good Morning America weatherman)

Yes, it can rain frogs, and snails, and snakes. But if you're hoping to read more about weird weather events, you're in for a disappointment. This book is mainly about weather - thunderstorms, hurricanes, etc. There are tips on how you can become a weather forecaster and some complicated activities to try, but the weird facts are few and far between. There are too many statistics, the illustrations are all in black and white, and there are no photographs. Not recommended.

February 2, 2010

Books celebrate Canadian achievements

by Tanya Lloyd Kyi

Brief biographies of 27 women from the fields of sports, pioneer days, arts, and science. A final chapter profiles those who followed unique career paths.

An interesting and enlightening book, especially since the women often had much adversity to overcome on their roads to success. 

A minor quibble is the author's choice of subjects. For example, why did she choose long retired athletes such as Abby Hoffman and Marilyn Bell? Considering that the book was published in 2001, she could have chosen athletes who were still competing. Also, most of the women mentioned in the book are either deceased or over 40 years of age. I was expecting more balanced coverage, i.e. women of all ages. However, the book should appeal to kids who like biography and history.

note: A revised edition of the book has since been published. Its cover is on the left. The above link is for this edition.

Thirty biographies of Canadian male athletes, scientists, explorers, entertainers, and businessmen. The focus is on men who achieved success before age 20. However, like the author's previous book, I wonder why she chose men who may not be well-known to today's kids. Hopefully, readers will be inspired to research more recent figures.