Monday, April 18, 2011

Steve Jenkins - how much can I adore your work? (science nonfiction for ages 7 - 10)

How much is it possible for me to adore, absolutely adore an author's work? OK, OK, I know - a whole lot! Steve Jenkins is an absolutely amazing author, one whose work I've turned to again and again this year. I'd love to share with you a little about his wonderful books and why I love them so very much.

One of our goals this winter and spring has been to encourage children to read more nonfiction. So much of the reading that students are required to do in middle school and high school is nonfiction reading, and yet the majority of their reading in elementary school is fiction. Students in grades 3 through 5 need more regular exposure to reading nonfiction books. Teachers can require students to read set passages for their history or science curriculum, but my passion is to help students find books that make them go, "Oh WOW!" or "Hey - did you know that ...?" I want to help them find books that they want to read, that they want to share with friends, that inspire them to read more. These are the types of books that Steve Jenkins writes.

Steve Jenkins combines a passion exploring science and nature with a creative spirit that engages kids. He has been called a "master illustrator" by the School Library Journal, and I would absolutely agree. His torn- and cut-paper collages, his varying perspectives, his use of scale all bring children right into his books. But I think children are really drawn to his books because they share Jenkins' natural curiosity about the world around them. Below I will highlight three of Jenkins books that especially draw 3rd through 5th graders into them. While several of his books are excellent for younger readers, I particularly want these older elementary readers to experience the joy and wonder of reading nonfiction.
How to Clean a Hippopotamus: A Look at Unusual Animal PartnershipsHow to Clean a Hippopotamus:
A Look at Unusual Animal Partnerships
by Steve Jenkins and Robin Page
NY: Houghton Mifflin, 2010
ages 7 - 10
available on Amazon and at your local library
How to Clean a Hippopotamus explores a variety of symbiotic relationships that animals have with other animals - relationships where two animals help each other in unique ways. Jenkins and his wife Robin Page have created a detailed book that kids love to browse through, but with a lot of details for kids to sink into. The book is discusses three different types of symbiotic relationships - animals that provide warning systems for each other, cleaning services, and protection. At first I was surprised by the panel layout of the book - it seems a contrast from Jenkins' other books with their spare design. But the detailed spreads work to provide lots of different chunks of information, without the book feeling too text heavy. Jenkins and Page provide definitions for many different scientific terms, but they keep their focus on interesting animal behavior.

The back matter includes a description of of symbiosis, and a list of books for further reading. Also included are brief descriptions of every animal that appears in the book, with size, habitat, and diet information. Although the School Library Journal says this book is for kindergartners through third graders, I would strongly disagree. Students in 3rd through 5th grades in our library have really enjoyed sitting down with this and reading the information.

I just love the details that I learned. Did you know, if a clown fish is away from its anemone for more than 45 minutes, it will no longer be safe and must acquire resistance to the anemone's stings all over again? 
The Top of the World: Climbing Mount EverestThe Top of the World
Climbing Mount Everest
by Steve Jenkins
NY: Houghton Mifflin, 1999
ages 7 - 10
available on Amazon and at your local library
Kids are fascinated by adventure and extreme challenges, and climbing Mount Everest is certainly an awe-inspiring endeavor. Inspired by reading Into Thin Air, Jenkins wanted to share some of the drama, the science and the adventure with children. This breath-taking book starts with an overview of the mountain and its location, then recounts famous climbs throughout history including those by Sir Edmund Hillary and Tenzing Norgay in 1953, and Rheinhold Messner in 1980. Next, Jenkins takes readers through the steps they would need to prepare for a climb. He examines the gear needed to prepare for a trek up Mount Everest, and then describes the journey itself.

As the Horn Book says in its review, "By the time we have reached the summit on the last spread, we have gained an understanding of the thrills as well as the immense hardships involved in this climb. Jenkins doesn't avoid details of frostbite and lost fingers, or even the visible litter of used oxygen canisters and frozen bodies of climbers who succumbed to the altitude and had to be left on the mountain." Fourth and fifth graders at our school have found this book fascinating, for the way it examines each aspect of mountain climbing, the clear information, and the striking illustrations.

The Top of the World won many awards, including the 1999 Boston Globe-Horn Book Award for nonfiction, was a 2000 Orbis Pictus Honor Book, was included in the School Library Journal Best Books of 1999 and the Notable Books for Children in 2000 from the ALA/ALSC.
Life on Earth: The Story of EvolutionLife on Earth
The Story of Evolution
by Steve Jenkins
NY: Houghton Mifflin, 2002
ages 8 - 12
available on Amazon and at your local library
Each of Jenkin's books starts with a question, one that children are interested in. In Life on Earth, Jenkins begins with the questions, Where did all the plants and animals on the earth come from? Why have some of them died out, while others have survived? After first exploring a brief history of the development on life forms on the earth, Jenkins asks the next question: "Why have so many different forms of life developed on the earth?" I found his exploration of Darwin's theory of evolution to be perfect for tweens. Jenkins brings young readers back into the 19th century, giving them a sense of what people were discovering to help scientists develop their ideas on evolution. He defines specific scientific terms, such as natural selection, mutation and variation, clearly and succinctly. As he discusses these difficult abstract ideas, Jenkins provides clear, concrete examples illustrated in his engaging paper collage style.

While I found this book fascinating, I have had a harder time getting our students to check it out. I imagine that students are not drawn by the cover as much as his other books. I also think that the abstract concept of evolution is a little daunting for many students. Jenkins' questions aren't pulling students in from the front cover - you need to have a seed of interest in the topic to be drawn to this book. What's particularly interesting is that this is one of Jenkins' top-selling books for this age group on Amazon, so the topic is certainly appealing to many children.

Jenkins blends a passion for both art and science in a way that I find particularly inspiring. Jenkins sums up his beliefs, saying:
"I believe that there's a cultural misconception about scientists, reinforced by many books, movies and television shows,that a scientist is cold, logical, unable to see the forest for the trees, the opposite of the artist, who is creative and intuitive; that science is Western and dissects things, while Eastern and artistic thought are holistic, spiritual, non-judgmental. But art and science are not mutually exclusive. I believe that understanding how things work, what they're called, and what they do, increases our sense of awe and reverence. I believe we should teach science as a process, tool, not just a collection of facts. It's a tool that allows children to test their own theories and to trust their own conclusions." (Children's Literature)
So yes, I do absolutely adore Steve Jenkins' work. If you share a love of animals, a passion for helping children explore our natural world, and an appreciation of stunning artwork, please take some time to check out Jenkins books. These are my favorites for older elementary students, but he has also written many books for younger students.

If you like Steve Jenkins' work, I would also recommend checking out Nic Bishop's books on animals, such as Lizards, Spiders and Marsupials. Bishop uses amazing photography to pull students in, the way that Jenkins uses wonderful collages.

The review copies came from our school library. If you make a purchase using the Amazon links on this site, a small portion will go to Great Kid Books (at no cost to you). Thank you for your support.

Review ©2011 Mary Ann Scheuer, Great Kid Books.

1 comment:

  1. Steve's books are an automatic purchase for me too. Even if I become a high school librarian or higher, I would find a way to add his books to my collection. A few of my favorites are: Never Smile at a Monkey, Actual Size and Down, Down, Down.