Two intrepid librarians

Two intrepid librarians review the best nonfiction books for children

Monday, August 21, 2017

Amazon Adventure by Sy Montgomery

Amazon Adventure: How Tiny Fish are Saving the World’s Largest Rainforest
(Scientists in the Field series)
Written by Sy Montgomery;                        Photographs by Keith Ellenbogen
Houghton & Mifflin, Harcourt. 2017
ISBN: 9780544352995
Grades 4 and up

This week, we return to the Amazon in this new entry in the Scientists in the Field series. We travel to the Amazon basin, the planet’s richest ecosystem, but instead of searching for the mythical city of Z, award-winning author, Sy Montgomery explains how a group of local fishers - men and women (piabeiros), and some tiny fish, just may be the answer to saving this delicate habitat.

Covering 2,670,000 square feet, the Amazon rainforest is essential to our planet. Because its trees provide a full fifth of the world’s oxygen, it’s considered “the lungs of the world.” Five hundred species make their home in the basin. From frogs to insects, where a butterfly’s wing can grow as big as your hand. Yet it all could vanish—and soon. Each year mining, clearcutting, burning, and cattle ranching destroy an area of Amazon forest twice the size of the city of Los Angeles.” That's 2.7 million acres destroyed ever year!

Montgomery travels with scientist Scott Dowd, senior aquarist with the New England Aquarium in Boston, to Brazil’s Rio Negro river, one of the two main arteries that join to form the Amazon River. It’s here that dozens of species of fish, — locals call them piaba (pee-AH-bah), meaning “small fry” or “pip-squeak”, are prized the world over in freshwater aquariums, especially the Cardinal Tetra. In 1991, Project Piaba was officially founded by Dr. Ning Labbish Chao, then a professor at University of Amazon. Their slogan, “Buy a Fish, save a tree” aims to connect hobbyists and professional aquarists around the world with the people who provide their fish. Together, they can help support the health of the jungle environment that the fish, the piabeiros (local fishers), and more than a thousand other species - including humans - depend on to survive.”  

On their adventure, Montgomery and photographer Keith Ellenbogen travel farther up stream to the village of Barcelos to join in the celebration of the Festival of Ornamental Fish. A famous celebration to honor the little fish that are the life blood of this town.

Similar in format, the titles in this series are a treasure trove for budding scientists. As always, Montgomery’s writing is engaging as she makes science accessible and exciting to readers. Chapters are separated by short, interesting side stories. 

I first heard about Project Piaba a few years ago when my local aquarium store offered to set up a fresh water aquarium at my local library. We have Serpae and Rummy-nose Tetras that came from Rio Negro river! Kids are fascinated by the tiny fish. It is the first, and last thing they visit in the Youth Services area.

Listen to an interview with Sy discussing her Amazon adventure and Project Piabab at WGBH radio.

Project Piaba is not just about some little fish; it’s a solution to global problems.

I borrowed a copy of this book from my local public library to write the review.


Note: While Cathy Potter is on Sabbatical, Louise is writing all the reviews. Cathy returns February 2018.

Monday, August 14, 2017

The Quest for Z by Greg Pizzoli

The Quest for Z: the True Story of Explorer Percy Fawcett and a Lost City in the Amazon
by Greg Pizzoli
Viking. 2017
ISBN: 9780670016532
Grades 3 and up (pretty exciting read for an adult, too)

Note: While Cathy Potter is on Sabbatical, Louise will be writing all the reviews. Cathy will return February, 2018. 

To me, books like The Quest for Z, which are introductions to interesting topics, can be a jumping off point for more research. A gateway drug, you might say, to learning more about the topic. So is the case with Pizzoli’s second nonfiction title (Tricky Vic) that recounts the adventures of British explorer Percy Fawcett, a surveyor for the Royal Geographical Society (RGS) and his fascination with finding an ancient city believed to have thrived and then forgotten deep within the Amazon rain forest. 

“Less than one hundred years ago, maps of the world still included large “blank spots”: distant and dangerous lands that mapmakers and scientists had not yet explored. One of these blank spots was deep within the Amazon rain forest, in Brazil.” 

Percy Fawcett was born in Devon, England in 1867. Adventure ran in the Fawcett family. Percy’s father was a fellow for RGS and his older brother wrote adventure novels. After serving in the artillery in present-day Sri Lanka for over ten years, Fawcett, then married, returned to England, joined the RGS in London and spent over a year learning how to survive in the wild. Upon graduation, he was hired to survey the boundaries of Bolivia, Brazil, and Peru; his first expedition was in 1906. During his travels, Fawcett heard of the legend of an ancient city. “He called the mythical city “Z.” (Pronounced “zed” in British). Thus began his fascination, no obsession, with the seemingly impossible idea that large civilizations existed in the Amazon. His dream was to find it. Fawcett would travel to South America seven times (1906, 1908, 1910, 1911, 1913, 1914, 1921).  

His final trip, in 1925, was to find the lost city. Accompanying Fawcett was his eldest son, Jack, and Jack’s childhood friend Raleigh Rimell. To fund this trip Fawcett agreed to send out reports that newspapers published tracking their perilous jungle adventure. He became a star! Then, one month into their journey, after sending the last of the letters carried out by two guides, the three explores set off alone into the unexplored jungles of Brazil,  “They were never seen again.”

This informational picture book is an exciting true story of a man who seemed to thrive in the jungle. No matter how serious the danger, how many of his company fell ill and died, Fawcett always made it out alive. So his disappearance seemed impossible. The lively engaging text is combined with full-page illustrations that were made using silkscreen, photographic halftones, Zipatone, photocopy machines, newspapers, cut paper, and Photoshop. There are a few sidebars that offer more details on topics mentioned in the text. Backmatter includes an author’s note, list of Fawcett Hunters, glossary, and selected sources. 

Did Fawcett ever discover the lost city of Z? Was he ever found alive or his bones unearthed? You’ll have to read, The Quest for Z to find out.

Highly recommended. 

Go here to learn more about Greg Pizzoli.

And if older students are as fascinated about Percy Fawcett as I was, offer them this article from The New Yorker Magazine by David Grann or his book The Lost City of Z: a tale of deadly obsession in the Amazon. Be sure to have on hand Sir Arthur Conan Doyle’s book, The Lost World: being an account of the recent amazing adventures of Professor George E. Challenger, Lord John Roxton, Professor Summerless, and Mr. E.D. Malone of the Daily gazette. Doyle based this book on the adventures of Percy Fawcett. 

A copy of this book was borrowed from my local public library to write this review.

Monday, August 7, 2017

The Abominable Mr. Seabrook by Joe Ollmann

The Abominable Mr. Seabrook
Joe Ollmann
Drawn & Quarterly. 2017
ISBN: 9781770462670
Grades 9 and up
To write this review I borrowed this book from the local library.

Note: While Cathy is on Sabbatical, Louise is writing all the reviews until she returns February, 2018. 

I was on the fence about calling The Abominable Mr. Seabrook nonfiction. Why? Because the author used dialogue to move the story forward. Yet, this book is so well-written, engaging, and meticulously researched, the author having spent 10 years studying Seabrook, that in the end I say it is a biography told in graphic format.

Ollmann states in the introduction, “I knew at the beginning that I wanted to do a linear biography and to put as little of my own editorial bias into it as possible, whatever the results. Some times a life doesn’t follow a neat narrative arc or fulfill the requirements of a biographer’s thesis. 

I’ve tried to remain true to the facts, though any biography that adds dialogue - as this one does though I’ve tried to use direct quotes as much as possible - has to be called speculative nonfiction. But meticulously researched speculative nonfiction!”

Who was Mr. Seabrook? William Bueller Seabrook (1884-1945) was an early 20th-century journalist known for his travel writings. He was friends with Aldous Huxley, Gertrude Stein, Theodore Dreiser, Man Ray, Salvador Dali, and others. 

Seabrook wrote ten books. Ollman claims, “Seabrook was a progenitor of gonzo journalism.” (think Hunter S. Thompson). His first book, Adventures in Arabia, published in 1927. is about Seabrook’s adventures living for two years in Lebanon, Iraq, Syria, and Jordan. He offers readers an insiders view of Bedouin life during the 1920’s. In 1929, his second book, The Magic Island, is a study of the people of Haiti and the practice of Voodoo. It is believed that Seabrook was the first to popularize the word Zombie.

I could go on and on, but suffice it to say that from the first page this biography captured my attention. Seabrook’s life was so interesting. He was married three times, was insecure about his writing, often ran from commitments or from his life if felt too comfortable. He was also an alcoholic who, unable to remain sober and quell his demons, committed suicide September 20, 1945. He was sixty-one. Ollmann’s illustrations use a limited palette of black and gray. The standard nine-panel grid format allows him to pack a lot of details about Seabrook’s life in 300 pages. Ollmann portrays Seabrook a bit unkempt and scratchy, which once you get to know him, fits his personality to a T.

The creepy thing about Seabrook is that he had a passion for sadomasochism (S&M). There are glimpses of women hanging from the rafters or bound, naked, on the floor, but they are not the centerpiece of this story, more accidental, in the background, as if we’ve accidentally walked into a room without knocking. (Ollmann states in his notes that the first woman willing collaborating in his bondage fantasies worked for Tony Sarg, the designer of the balloons in th first Macy’s Day Thanksgiving Parade). 

I highly recommend The Abominable Mr. Seabrook to lovers of the graphic biography, for those who enjoy reading about the quirky, imperfect individual, and biographies about people who have all but been forgotten. 

Back matter includes author’s note, a bibliography, and Ollmann’s brief reviews of all ten of Seabrook’s books. To support his added dialogue or when using direct  quotes, Ollmann also includes his notes, giving page number and specific panel (page 15, panel 7)  of where he got his information.



I will note here that I am a huge fan of the publisher, Drawn & Quarterly. They publish really top-notch books in the graphic format