Grunt, Quack, Oink | Focus On Animal Books

From preschool to middle grade, these nonfiction titles explore the animal kingdom and all its wild ways.
Photo by anopdesignstock/ThinkStock

Photo by anopdesignstock/ThinkStock

While the nation’s schools align their curricula with the Common Core State Standards (CCSS), school and public librarians serving children remain constant in their task of connecting young people with age-appropriate, meaningful materials. As Olga Nesi, a library services coordinator in the NYC Department of Education, notes, “While public and school librarians differ, our common patron base of children gives both groups fertile ground for growing ever stronger collaborative bonds.” Implementing CCSS for elementary students emphasizes content-rich text, and that means a wider range of carefully chosen nonfiction titles will end up in classrooms, backpacks, and, hopefully, even tucked into suitcases for family vacations. Linda Williams, children’s services consultant for the Connecticut State Library, highlights trade books found through reliable review sources. “Many books are advertised as suitable for Common Core use,” says Williams, “but librarians are looking for high-quality, complex texts.” She sees librarians as being well suited to help teachers find the materials they need, and is developing a webpage to assist in that effort.

As teachers team up with librarians to create go-to booklists and recommended websites, this is a starter set of animal-related nonfiction titles suitable for the elementary set. “Moo” and “Baa” are among a toddler’s first words, so it’s no surprise that young readers are fascinated by critters that swim, hop, and fly. (You’ll find some suggestions for classroom use tucked into the annotations.) While the focus is on outstanding books from the past three years, also recommended are standouts by authors such as Gail Gibbons, Caroline Arnold, and Seymour Simon, who’ve written excellent volumes for years. With a wealth of choices, this list covers a wide range of animals, but does not include insects. The books are divided into land, sea, and air, with a section devoted to more encyclopedic titles.


In the Air

CATE, Annette LeBlanc. Look Up! Bird-Watching in Your Own Backyard. illus. by author. Candlewick. 2013. Tr $15.99. ISBN 9780763645618. Gr 2-5–City, suburban, and rural youngsters are urged to check out the avian life in their neighborhoods. Lively word balloons and mixed-media artwork explain how to observe and sketch birds identified in color-coded groups. The perfect starter text for this popular pastime, and an inspiration for students to create their own chatty bird cartoons. HALFMANN, Janet. Home in the Cave. illus. by Shennen Bersani. Arbordale. 2012. Tr $17.95. ISBN 9781607185222; pap. $9.95. ISBN 9781607185314. K-Gr 2–Baby Bat is scared when he tumbles into the packrat’s nest, but the helpful rodent (aided by a flashlight) takes the young one on a tour of their mutual home. Set up as a story with additional fact pages and activities, the text covers other cave dwellers, geologic explanations, and available food. Mixed-media drawings complement the narrative. JUDGE, Lita. Bird Talk: What Birds Are Saying and Why. illus. by author. Roaring Brook. 2012. Tr $17.99. ISBN 9781596436466; ebk. $9.99. ISBN 9781466808713. Gr 2-5–Protecting, parenting, and flirting are just a few ways birds employ their singing and dancing talents. Highlighting 28 global species, the soaring illustrations delight and instruct while the text offers intriguing bits of information; for example, flamingos communicate vocally with their eggs, and peregrine falcons encourage their young to fly with shrill calls. KEENAN, Shelia. As the Crow Flies. illus. by Kevin Duggan. Feiwel & Friends. 2012. Tr $16.99. ISBN 9780312621568; ebk. $9.99. ISBN 9781466822467. Gr 2-4–City-dwelling crows explain their daily activities in simple rhyming couplets. Double-page spreads and split panels soar with Duggan’s softly vibrant, colored pencil illustrations. Notes from the author and illustrator offer additional facts. Use as a model for writing animal couplets, then combine student work into a class book. LEWIN, Ted & Betsy Lewin. Puffling Patrol. illus. by authors. Lee & Low. 2012. Tr $19.95. ISBN 9781600604249. Gr 2-5–When baby puffins (pufflings) lose their way while fledging near a small Icelandic town, children join the patrols gently rescuing them. After the stranded birds are deemed healthy, the patrols release the pufflings. Impressive double-page watercolors, most with brief text, will draw readers. Students can use the concluding pages of facts to create an imagined diary of a rescue. MUNRO, Roxie. Hatch! illus. by author. Marshall Cavendish. 2011. Tr $17.99. ISBN 9780761458821. K-Gr 4–Nine sections feature life-size examples of birds, their eggs, and the query, “Can you guess whose eggs these are?” Generous spreads with informative text depict each bird in its habitat, from the emperor penguin to the cactus wren. Students can create “eggs with facts” for other avian species. ROTH, Susan L. & Cindy Trumbore. Parrots over Puerto Rico. illus. by Susan L. Roth. Lee & Low. 2013. Tr $19.95. ISBN 9781620140048. Gr 3-6–Lushly colored collages on vertical page layouts and an easy-to-understand text relate efforts to revive the endangered Puerto Rican parrot. The role of the island’s history in the bird’s decline and current parrot program successes are an integral part of the story. An afterword provides color photos and additional information. An excellent springboard for discussing endangered species and conservation efforts. SLJ1407-FT_FO-CVstrip2

In the Water

CERULLO, Mary M. City Fish, Country Fish. photos by Jeffrey L. Rotman. Tilbury House. 2012. Tr $16.95. ISBN 9780884483236; ebk. $16.99. ISBN 9780884483458. Gr 2-6–Coral reef denizens are “city fish,” while “country fish” live in cooler open water. Blocks of clearly written text describe both bioregions, and vivid photos display the varied colors, shapes, and sizes of these underwater residents. Have students create a seascape where fish can be moved into the correct habitats, or use information to compare and contrast their behaviors. CERULLO, Mary M. with Clyde F. E. Roper. Giant Squid: Searching for a Sea Monster. (Smithsonian). Capstone. 2012. lib. ed. $26.86. ISBN 9781429675413; pap. $8.95. ISBN 9781429680233; ebk. $8.99. ISBN 9781620650080. Gr 3-6–Cerullo traces both the search for the “mythic monster of the deep” described by seafarers and author Jules Verne and the modern quest of coauthor Roper, a zoologist and squid researcher. Photos, drawings, and maps document past conjectures and recent discoveries. The text may challenge young readers, but they’ll be drawn to the account when it is read aloud and discussed. CURTIS, Jennifer Keats. Seahorses. illus. by Wallace Chad. Holt. 2012. Tr $16.99. ISBN 9780805092394; ebk. $9.99. ISBN 9781466819337. K-Gr 2–Told as a story, the seahorse’s life cycle is magically illustrated with luminous, digitally created images. Unique mating practices, camouflage techniques, dietary choices, and concerns over human encroachment are among the topics explored. Young students might be prompted to investigate differences between the familiar land mammal and this aquatic lookalike. DAVIES, Nicola. Dolphin Baby. illus. by Brita Granström. (Read and Wonder). Candlewick. 2012. Tr $15.99. ISBN 9780763655488; pap. $6.99. ISBN 9780763670481. Gr 1-3–As readers dive into a dolphin’s first six months, largely blue double-page illustrations present a serene underwater world. Brief facts supplement a narrative that follows the dolphin’s development. Stressing the pod’s cooperation and the mother/calf relationship, this is a perfect vehicle for discussing human versus dolphin families. GUIBERSON, Brenda Z. Into the Sea. illus. by Alix Berenzy. Holt. 1996. pap. $8.99. ISBN 9780805064810. Gr 1-3–Follow a female sea turtle hatchling over the dunes into the sea where she matures, escapes from a fishing net, and finally returns to the sand to lay her eggs. Depicting scenes above and below the surface, Berenzy’s colored pencil and gouache artwork enriches the story. A gently rendered introduction to the life cycle. LAWLER, Janet. Ocean Counting. photos by Brian Skerry. National Geographic. 2013. lib. ed. $25.90. ISBN 9781426311178; Tr $16.95. ISBN 9781426311161. PreS-Gr 2–From one green sea turtle to ten Bermuda sea chubs, this straightforward text covers fun facts. The mix includes sea otters, Adélie penguins, pink sea stars, harp seals, hammerhead sharks, and more—all used in bar graphs. A map documents the photographed locations. Use as a model to make a class counting book about a different habitat. LEVINE, Ellen. Seababy: A Little Otter Returns Home. illus. by Jon Van Zyle. Walker. 2012. lib. ed. $17.89. ISBN 9780802798091; Tr $16.99. ISBN 9780802798084. K-Gr 3–After a young sea otter is washed up on shore, people feed and gently introduce the pup to behaviors needed to survive in the wild. With only a brief glimpse of humans, the acrylic spreads focus on the sea otter and his return to the ocean. Based on the Monterey Bay Aquarium program. SLJ1407-FT_FO-CVstrip3

On the Ground

BISHOP, Nic. Snakes. photos by author. (Nic Bishop). Scholastic. 2012. Tr $17.99. ISBN 9780545206389. Gr 3-5–Snakes shown in brilliantly colorful photographs, often three to five times their actual size, practically leap off single, double, and foldout pages. The anatomy, locomotion, diet, and defense mechanisms are detailed for more than a dozen species. Ask if snakes are helpful or harmful, and have students find facts to support their opinions. BROWNE, Anthony. One Gorilla: A Counting Book. illus. by author. Candlewick. 2013. Tr $16.99. ISBN 9780763663520. K-Gr 2–Compelling eye-to-eye encounters go from one gorilla to ten lemurs on oversize spreads. Powerful paintings and spare text showcase species including well-known breeds. Browne’s self-portrait connects all primates, with additional human portraits at the end. A seamless, subtle introduction to biology—a masterwork that can prompt writing and discussion on many levels. COLLARD, Sneed B. Sneed B. Collard III’s Most Fun Book Ever About Lizards. Charlesbridge. 2012. pap. $7.95. ISBN 9781580893251. Gr 3-6–Close-up photographs, some full page, introduce lizards, from chameleons to Komodo dragons. Engaging, conversational text presented in short chapters and interesting sidebars reveals surprising specifics about the world’s most common reptiles. Students might craft letters of introduction to particular lizards featuring facts on diet, habitat, and physical features. COWCHER, Helen. Desert Elephants. illus. by author. Farrar. 2011. Tr $16.99. ISBN 9780374317744. Gr 1-3–In Mali, local people assist elephants as the animals make their 300-mile migration in search of water. Cowcher’s story highlights the cooperation among ethnic groups and their historical traditions that respect the elephants, while her paintings capture the journey’s highlights. An endpaper map shows the animals’ route. Concluding questions will spur discussion on this rarely considered topic. ESZTERHAS, Suzi. Cheetah. photos by author. (Eye on the Wild). Frances Lincoln. 2012. Tr $15.99; pap. $15.25. ISBN 9781847803078. PreS-Gr 2–The cheetah’s family life is documented with excellent full-color photography and simple chronological text. Starting with blind cubs and ending with full-grown two-year-olds, the book offers views of the cats’ activities and development. Compare and contrast with domestic cats or Lion (2012), another title in this solid series. GUIBERSON, Brenda Z. Frog Song. illus. by Gennady Spirin. Holt. 2013. Tr $17.99. ISBN 9780805092547. K-Gr 4–Eleven frogs and toads from across the globe are featured in richly detailed illustrations done with tempera, watercolors, and pencil. Double-page paintings and simple yet intriguing text, sprinkled with onomatopoeic effects, includes information about geographic location, life cycle, and habitat. Photos and more facts are appended in this cross-curricular wonder of science and art. KELLY, Susan & Deborah Lee Rose. Jimmy the Joey: The True Story of an Amazing Koala Rescue. photos by Susan Kelly. National Geographic. 2013. lib. ed. $25.90. ISBN 9781426313721; Tr $16.95. ISBN 9781426313714. Gr 1-4–An injured, orphaned koala is raised in an Australian koala rescue hospital. Heart-tugging photographs augment the clear, logical text relating the steps in Jimmy’s rescue, rehabilitation, and return to the wild. Additional fact pages provide a jumping-off point for further investigation. URBIGKIT, Cat. The Path of the Pronghorn. photos by Mark Goeke. Boyds Mills. 2010. Tr $17.95. ISBN 9781590787564. Gr 3-6–The world’s second-fastest land animal, the pronghorn antelope, is described in well-researched text and documented with striking photos. The book follows the migration of a Wyoming herd from spring to winter and includes concerns about their interaction with humans. A first-rate introduction to animal migration and an excellent title for young researchers. SLJ1407-FT_FO-CVstrip4

All over the World

BLEIMAN, Andrew & Chris Eastland. ABC ZooBorns! S. & S./Beach Lane. 2012. Tr $12.99. ISBN 9781442443716; ebk. $8.99. ISBN 9781442443730. PreS-Gr 2–Drawn from zoo nurseries worldwide, animal infant photos are set with short sentences written as if the tiny creatures are talking. All get high marks for cuteness and are accompanied by a smattering of facts. Primarily an alphabet book, but additional information on each animal is provided at the end. CARLE, Eric. What’s Your Favorite Animal? Holt. 2014. Tr $17.99. ISBN 9780805096415; ebk. $9.99. ISBN 9781466864030. K-Gr 2–Carle and 13 other prominent author/illustrators, including Mo Willems, Peter Sís, and Lucy Cousins, answer the title question with prose, poetry, and a variety of artwork. Brief biographical information on each contributor is provided, and proceeds will benefit the Eric Carle Museum of Picture Book Art. Students will want to answer the question with their own text and drawings. JENKINS, Steve. The Animal Book: A Collection of the Fastest, Fiercest, Toughest, Cleverest, Shyest,‒and Most Surprising‒Animals on Earth. illus. by author. Houghton Harcourt. 2013. Tr $21.99. ISBN 9780547557991. Gr 2-6–Jenkins adds facts and his visually striking collages to intriguing graphs, time lines, and descriptions that compare and contrast species. Chapters include Predators, Animal Senses, Defenses, and Family, while a dozen supplementary pages present thumbnail sketches with brief bios of almost 300 species. Well suited to create a “size line” from bitty bugs to behemoths or make a rainbow of animals. LEWIS, J. Patrick, ed. National Geographic Book of Animal Poetry: 200 Poems with Photographs That Squeak, Soar, and Roar! National Geographic. 2012. lib. ed. $28.90. ISBN 9781426310546; Tr $24.95. ISBN 9781426310096. K-Gr 6–A super selection of kid-perfect poems includes works by a wide range of poets and features animals big and small, from African elephants to zebra mussels, all illustrated with exemplary photos. To develop listening skills, read descriptive verses aloud, but omit the animal’s name, and see if student teams can identify the poem’s subject. MICHÉ, Mary. Nature’s Patchwork Quilt: Understanding Habitats. illus. by Consie Powell. Dawn Publications. 2012. Tr $16.95. ISBN 9781584691693; pap. $8.95. ISBN 9781584691709. Gr 2-4–Using patchwork as a metaphor for the interdependence of fauna and flora in different habitats, Powell’s double-page watercolors of forest, shoreline, desert, prairie, ponds, and even Arctic landscapes are set with classic quilt patterns. Though animals are not named in the text, the publisher’s website offers printable activities with an identification key. MORELOCK, Lisa. Track That Scat. illus. by Carrie Anne Bradshaw. Sleeping Bear. 2012. Tr $15.95. ISBN 9781585365364. Gr 1-4–Told in simple verse on earth-toned spreads, this spirited nature tale follows Finn and her hound as they track animal scat (the droppings of rabbits, geese, raccoons, etc.) in a nearby wood. Short paragraphs of higher level text provide additional information and pair well with illustrations of tracks and scat to add depth to the title. PATTISON, Darcy. Desert Baths. illus. by Kathleen Rietz. Arbordale. 2012. Tr $17.95. ISBN 9781607185253; pap. $9.95. ISBN 9781607185345. K-Gr 2–Deserts are dry, but the turkey vulture starts the day with a sunbath, and the Anna’s hummingbird slides down a dewy leaf. Brief, lilting prose describes the bathing rituals of a dozen diverse creatures, including the javelina, rattlesnake, and scaled quail, all portrayed in richly detailed paintings. Six activity pages offer fun facts, an animal matching game, and more. SINGER, Marilyn. A Strange Place to Call Home: The World’s Most Dangerous Habitats & the Animals That Call Them Home . illus. by Ed Young. Chronicle. 2012. Tr $16.99. ISBN 9781452101200. Gr 2-6–Under a glacier, deep in a cave, and high in the mountains are among the 14 challenging habitats described in Singer’s gently lilting poems and Young’s soft-edged collage illustrations. Whether they choose the more familiar mountain goat or lesser-known limpets, students can look up and list facts found in each poem.

Barbara Wysocki, retired co-director of Children’s Services in Rocky Hill, CT, divides her time between freelance writing and part-time library work.

On The Web

For Teachers

Animal Fact Guide. Animal Fact Guide. New London, CT. (Accessed 5/16/14). Created by a wildlife artist and a middle school teacher, this site offers an annotated list of links to animal-related websites, many useful for students. Additional resources include pages of facts about individual animals with color photos.

For Students

Animal Database. (Accessed 5/16/14). Gr 2-6 –Part of the KidsKnowIt Network, a provider of free (but not advertisement-free) educational content, this site profiles a wide variety of animals with photographs plus a description of habitat, appearance, and life cycle. Set up in searchable categories. National Geographic Kids: Videos. National Geographic Society. (Accessed 5/16/14). K-Gr 4 –More than 100 brief, informative videos (some with narration, some only with background music) feature amphibians, birds, bugs, fish, mammals, reptiles, and more. Students can visit the related webpage,, for additional facts and figures on specific animals. Ranger Rick: Animals. National Wildlife Federation. (Accessed 5/16/14). Gr 1-4–Games, crafts, recipes, songs, outdoor activities, and articles, some drawn from the magazine, offer simple ideas to encourage animal exploration. Check out the educator’s guide for links to their monthly Nature Notebook and printable student activity sheets for Common Core-style use of Ranger Rick articles.

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