One night I was adding books to an Amazon wish list and the recommended list that sprang up led me on a little rabbit trail. I found so many interesting looking books that I added to my library hold list. Several of them are also going on the lists of books I want to purchase as Christmas gifts for the kids so as to add them to our home library. I am such a sucker for gorgeously illustrated and informative books, the kinds that kids and adults can lose themselves in and that are invitations to learn more and go deeper.
1. The Story of Buildings: From the Pyramids to the Sydney Opera House and Beyond by Patrick Dillon, illustrated by Stephen Biesty.
In style and substance it’s very reminiscent of David McCauley’s books, although these pictures are in color. We’ve loved his Castle and Cathedral and Pyramid and this has much the same feel. It also reminds me a bit of Round Buildings, Square Buildings, and Buildings that Wiggle Like a Fish.
The first chapter opens:
Imagine you’re in a forest. Night is falling. You have to build a shelter.
“You gather sticks and stack them up to make a shelter, but the sticks keep toppling over. At last you learn how to tie them with vines to hold them upright, but when you crawl into the cabin, there’s hardly any space inside. Logs don’t keep the rain out, either. It trickles between them and drips on your face.
From there it walks you step by step through the history of building a house, from living in caves through Roman insulae and modern high rises. With explorations of tepees, igloos, Bedouin tents. Looking at the development of roofs, fireplaces and glass windows, arches, hypocausts, running water, stairs, and elevators. Also considering barns, mills, harbors, factories, and airports. And also, delightfully, the emotional importance of buildings.
Subsequent chapters trace the history of famous buildings and architectural styles. Beginning with the pyramid of Djoser then the temples of Greece, the Parthenon, the innovations of the Romans and Hagia Sophia. It doesn’t only trace the history of Western architecture, though, there’s also the Forbidden City, the Taj Mahal and other buildings from around the world. There’s St Petersburg, Melk Abbey, the Crystal Palace and the Chrysler Building, Bauhaus and Frank Lloyd Wright. It’s a delightful survey. And there are lovely little fold-out insets that talk about classical orders, arches and domes, symmetry, pattern, cantilevers, reinforced concrete, skyscrapers, Otis’s safety elevator, and more. At the back there’s a very nice timeline. All the kids have lost themselves in it. Dom and I have both wanted to sit down and read it. And have spent more time that we intended when it became lunchtime reading. Bella took it to bed with her tonight and earlier today was inspired to make some architectural drawings of her own.
2. Animalium (Welcome to the Museum) by Jenny Broom, illustrated by Katie Scott.
Not to be confused with Graeme Base’s Animalia.
The conceit is that the book is a Natural History Museum with six galleries: Invertebrates, Fish, Amphibians, Reptiles, Birds, Mammals. The classes, the introduction, or “Entrance” says, are “arranged in evolutionary order to show how the animal kingdom has developed over time.”
“Some rooms showcase a group of related animals, look for the characteristic similarities and read the text to find out more about how the animals are comparable. Some galleries offer a glimpse of the museum’s dissection laboratory, where hte animals skeletons and internal organs can be studied.
In addition each gallery includes a habitat diorama, showcasing an ecosystem and the animals who live there.”
The illustrations have a lovely old fashioned look, reminiscent of Audubon’s birds and other scientific illustrations of the period. The animals’ colors are muted and warm with crisp ink outlines. The pages are thick and varying shades of ivory and cream which also gives it a vintage feel.
Before you get to the galleries there’s a lovely Tree of Animal Life. The galleries aren’t attempts at encyclopedic coverage. They’re idiosyncratic. It reminds me very much of a Victorian curio cabinet. This book is a delight, but it’s an appetizer course not a main meal, it’s definitely not a guide book or a comprehensive text book, but I really want it on my schoolroom shelf because I know my children will spend hours poring over it and that it will be time well spent.
3. Maps by Aleksandra and Daniel Mizielinski.
Another book with an old fashioned feel.
This is a book for people who love to pore over maps. I’ve seen all of my kids lost in it at one time or another. Also seen them all crowded around it, squabbled over it. I’ve heard conversations about Asia, about the continents, about various countries. Sophie has announced, surprised, that Japan is not very big. My kids love to look at our globe and our map puzzles and that same love has transferred to the maps in this book.
It’s not an atlas, and it doesn’t have maps for every country. But it has a world map, maps of each continent, and maps of selected countries. Detailed country maps are crowded with cartoons. Pages are dotted with different animals. oceans have fish and marine mammals and birds. Every map has various animals and plants. Individual country maps have geographic features, monuments, historic and cultural figures, people wearing traditional dress, all sorts of random information.
The book opens with a map of the world with each continent in a different color. Then each section of the book is arranged by continent, first a continent map with all the countries labeled, and then the country maps. Each map is a two page spread.
So there’s a map of Europe, fully labeled including the tiny countries like Monaco and Andorra and Vatican City, which is then followed by close-up maps of selected European countries: Iceland, Sweden, Finland, United Kingdom, Netherlands, Belgium, Germany, Switzerland, Austria, Poland, Czech Republic, France, Spain, Italy, Croatia, Romania, Greece.
Then the Asia map with close-ups of Russia, Mongolia, China, Nepal, India, Thailand, Japan, and Jordan.
Then a map of Africa with close-ups of Morocco, Egypt, Ghana, Tanzania, Namibia, Republic of South Africa, and Madagascar.
North America’s featured maps are Canada, the United States, and Mexico.
South America’s are Ecuador, Peru, Brazil, Chile.
Australia and Oceania includes maps of Australia, New Zealand, and Fiji.
Then there are maps of the Arctic and Antarctica.
Finally several pages of flags of the world.
If you’ve got limited budget and shelf space and are going to own only one map book, this probably won’t be what you want. Get a good atlas. But if you like to have beautiful and interesting books that will spark love for learning and inculcate an interest in geography, then Maps is a highly recommended addition to a well-curated library. I note that both Animalium and Maps are published by Big Picture Press, an imprint of Candlewick. It’s a new list, just launched in 2013 and looks to be worth keeping an eye on. So far I’m impressed.
Big Picture Press books are objects to be pored over and then returned to, again and again… created by and made for the incurably curious.
We also recognize that visual excellence enhances the way we read and the stories we are told – whatever corner of the globe you’re reading from.
4. Tiny Creatures: The World of Microbes by Nicola Davies, illustrated by Emily Sutton.
Making microbes accessible to small children is a challenge. This introduction is very good at using various comparisons to make the scale comprehensible. The text is clear and the illustrations are lovely.
Sophie has read this book twice so far in the two days that we’ve had it. She announced at dinner one night that she’d been reading about little tiny living things that can make people sick and they multiply very very fast. When a book excited dinnertime conversation, I know it’s a hit.
5. The Iridescence of Birds: A Book About Henri Matisse by Patricia MacLachlan, illustrated by Hadley Hooper.
“If you were a boy named Henri Matisse who lived in a dreary town in northern France where the skies were gray And the days were cold And you wanted color and light And sun, And your mother to brighten your days, Painted plates to hang on the walls . . . Would it surprise you that you grew up to be a fine painter who painted red rooms And flowers that danced on green stems And fruit in a bowl. . .”
The illustrations are really attractive, but I found the text a little odd and off-putting. Second person, rhetorical questions, odd capitalization and weird phrasing. Basically two sentences, the first which comprises most of the book is a long run on, though capitalized at the beginning of each phrase so it looks like a poem. I guess it’s a poem? Anyway, it didn’t work for me.
But it definitely worked for Sophie. She recognized one of the Matisse pictures that the book references. We first looked at our Matisse board book and then I pulled out my phone and we used Google image search to find many, many more Matisse pictures to look at. We talked about his style and many of the recurring elements of his paintings and also talked about his collages and found a photo of him sitting in his wheelchair and cutting pieces for a collage. So as an introduction to Matisse, I suppose it worked pretty well. And I suspect that the thing that bothers me won’t bother most other people. In fact, you’ll probably like it just fine.
6. Home by Carson Ellis
A whimsical book that explores different images of homes from different varieties of houses and apartments and wigwams to fantastical fairy houses and nursery rhyme houses and homes of space aliens and undersea knights and Atlanteans. The pictures are a visual delight, full of charming details. The book ends with an image of the illustrator in her studio surrounded by various props and items which appear in the preceding pages. It makes for a lovely game of Memory or I Spy and my children delighted in identifying where each thing appeared. The focus is definitely on the pictures, not on the text, which is adequate but not inspiring.
I debated a bit as to whether to include these last two books on my great finds list because I’m not sure they’re items I’d add to our home library. But I’m most definitely glad we checked them out from the library and I’d certainly recommend you add them to your library list.
Oh and one more library find:
7. Once Upon a Full Moon by Elizabeth Quan.
An autobiographical picture book set in the 1920s narrated by a young girl who with her family– parents and 5 brothers and sisters– moves from Toronto to her parents’ native China to live with her father’s mother. The family takes the train across Canada and then crosses the Pacific by boat. The trip takes a month, from one full moon to another. They stop to visit family friends in Japan and Hong Kong and end up in grandmother’s loving embrace. My kids have loved this story, illustrated by the author in watercolor pictures. It’s full of lovely details, has a family with lots of kids, rather like ours. We’ve been equally fascinated by the Canadian leg of the journey as by the sea crossing and the arrival in China. We got out the globe and traced the journey. A good excuse for geography lessons.