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Book Review: Moto and Me by Suzi Eszterhas

When Suzi Eszterhas was a kid, she told her mom that when she grew up, she was going to live in a tent in Africa. And she did. She became a wildlife photographer and spent three years living in a tent on the Masai Mara National Reserve in Kenya. While there, a park ranger asked if she would help raise an orphaned serval. (Servals are mid-sized, spotted wildcats found in Africa, and they are considered at risk in some regions, due to habitat loss and hunting.)

The serval kitten was just two weeks old when she got him. She named him Moto, and he needed a lot of care—she bottle fed him, groomed him with a toothbrush, and carried him around in a cloth pouch when he was too young to be left alone. As he grew, she helped him learn the skills he would need to survive in the wild.

Moto and Me: My Year as a Wildcat’s Foster Mom is one of my top three favorite books from 2017. Written for second to fifth graders, the narrative of the text is compelling, and at the same time manages to share a lot of information about servals, animal rescue efforts, and conservation work in East Africa.

And that kitten is just so dang cute. I’ve booktalked this title in dozens of fourth and fifth grade classes as part of my library outreach work, and the photos never fail to elicit a crooning “awwwwwwhhh” from the kids.

Suzi Eszterhas is author/photographer of several other children’s books about wildlife and animal rescue efforts, including Orangutan Orphanage, Koala Hospital, and Baby Animals Playing.

 

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Book Review: Whippoorwill

whippoorwillWhen sixteen-year-old Clair Taylor’s neighbors get a dog and leave him staked in the yard in freezing weather, she tries to ignore the whimpers and cries—the clear neglect—that is going on outside her window. The dog is none of her business, and Mr. Stewart, the neighbor, is a rude and abusive man.

Eventually the dog’s suffering becomes too much for Clair, and she begins visiting him. His name is Wally. His neck is chafed raw. He’s covered in mud and poop. And he goes crazy for attention. Clair wishes she hadn’t closed her eyes to the situation for so long.

Through the dog, Clair gets to know the neighbor’s son Danny, a boy her age she has lived next to her whole life but never really talked to before. A bit like the dog, Danny is starving for kindness. As they spend time together trying to train Wally, it seems that Danny likes her. The heart of the story is Clair feeling her way through changing relationships—with the dog, with her father, and with Danny.

Whippoorwill is beautifully written. The rural working-class setting is vivid, and the story not only shows how an animal can bring people together, but also how deserving of love unwanted canines (and humans) really are. I highly recommend Joseph Monninger’s book for teens and adults who like thought-provoking dog stories—and underdog stories.

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Book Review: The Story of Owen: Dragon Slayer of Trondheim by E.K. Johnston

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Imagine a world that is just like our own—same countries, same technologies, same history—but with one major difference: dragons. The dragons in The Story of Owen don’t limit themselves to feeding on damsels in distress. They’ll eat anybody. And livestock, too. But if there’s one thing these low-intelligence beasts truly can’t resist, it’s carbon emissions. Fossil fuels are like candy (and of similar nutritional value) to all species of dragons.

Dragons were a nuisance before the industrial revolution, but every small village had its dragon slayer. Now with increased carbon emissions, dragons are a major threat, and all dragon slayers get conscripted to protect the world’s oil reserves. After their years in the Oil Watch are over, dragon slayers usually stay in cities with high-paying corporate contracts. This leaves rural areas largely unprotected.

It is big news, then, when the Thorskards, a preeminent dragon-slaying family, announce they are going to move to a small town in Ontario. Lottie Thorskard has been forced to retire after a dragon injury she received while protecting automobiles in morning rush hour. She’ll focus now on training her nephew Owen.

Sixteen-year-old Siobhan McQuaid doesn’t think the arrival of the Thorskards in town will make much difference in her life. She’s focused on her music and avoiding her parents’ questions about what she’s going to do after high school. But she becomes friends with Owen, dragon-slayer-in-training, and his family asks her to become his bard. From there, Siobhan’s future is deeply intertwined with Owen’s, and with protecting her region from increased dragon attacks.

The Story of Owen brings alive an environmental dystopia, but it’s different from many in the genre. It’s not a futuristic scenario that tries to show what could happen if we don’t shape up. Instead, the narrative is rooted in a present-day parallel universe that seems to underscore the lengths to which we go to hold onto a fossil-fuel based life. This is a thought-provoking read—but also a very engaging story. (Recommended for grade 7 and up.)

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Review of The Eye of the Whale by Jennifer O’Connell

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A humpback whale is tangled in hundreds of yards of crab-trap lines. She can’t get free. She can barely keep her blowhole above water to breathe. The whale has been spotted by a fisherman, but will the rescue team be able to free her? Will they even arrive in time?

Based on an actual event that occurred in 2005, The Eye of the Whale tells the story a whale rescue effort that took place eighteen miles off the coast of San Francisco. Author/illustrator Jennifer O’Connell brings the story to life for young audiences. Her picture book has rich illustrations and just enough—but not too many—words. The publisher is marketing the title for grades 1-5, but it could be appropriate as a read-aloud for somewhat younger children.

Dive master James has never been close to a whale before. When he dives near, he sees that dozens of ropes are cutting into the whale’s skin. She is trapped. James knows that a whale’s tail is dangerous, but the only way to get her free is to swim near and cut through all the lines.

As the divers work, the whale watches and keeps still. She seems to understand what is going on. When the final rope is cut and the whale is free, the animal nudges the divers and looks at them before disappearing into the sea.

This book captures the wonder that the divers experienced in their interactions with the whale. Without being preachy, the story shows how human activities—crab fishing, in this case—can have a dangerous impact on sea creatures. The book’s back matter presents strong additional details about the historical event that inspired the story, but only briefly lists continued threats to whale populations. A five-page teacher guide is available on the publisher’s website (www.tilburyhouse.com). Along with discussion questions and related activities, this resource presents more information about humpback whales and discusses research on the emotional capacity of whales.

It’s a beautiful book.

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Book Review: Mikis and the Donkey by Bibi Dumon Tak

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“Mikis stroked the donkey’s ears. It was six feet from the bottom of the ears to their very tip…and then six feet all the way back down again. Well, that’s what it felt like. The donkey’s ears were so long that there seemed to be no end to them!”

There’s a surprise in Grandpa’s stable. It’s a donkey with soft fur, a pale nose, and two very long ears. Mikis feels an immediate connection with the animal. He names her Tsaki and becomes the animal’s friend and advocate. While Grandpa considers the donkey to be “a tractor on legs”—he bought her to help haul firewood down the mountain—Mikis understands that the animal needs love, care, and proper treatment. After Tsaki gets injured, Mikis gives Grandpa “donkey lessons,” and the older man begins to treat her better.

Set on the quiet Greek island of Corfu, the plot hinges on Mikis trying to provide a better life for the donkey—reasonable loads to carry, companionship, and an airier stable. At the book’s heart is the importance of learning to care about others. Although the quiet nature of the story may not engage some children, the many black and white line illustrations should be enticing for early chapter book readers.

Originally published in Dutch, Mikis and the Donkey was recently awarded the 2015 Mildred L. Batchelder award for best children’s book translated from a foreign language. In a short afterward, the author describes her visit to the donkey sanctuary on Corfu, where she sets this story. She says, “Tsaki was one of the first donkeys at the donkey sanctuary on Corfu. And that’s why the donkey in this book is called Tsaki, as a very small tribute to every working donkey, all over the world.”

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