Sunday, October 31, 2010


In 2007, ten-year-old Kostia Khudi and his brother, Edik, are gathering firewood in their home in Northern Siberia when they notice a strange lump by the river. At first, they assume it's a dead reindeer, but on further investigation, they find it has a trunk like an elephant. They hurry home to tell their father, a member of the Nemet tribe, who believe that anything that comes from the underworld will bring terrible luck. Yuri first hikes to a sacred place on the tundra to make an offering to the spirits, then hikes 73 miles to report the sighting of the creature, which turns out to be a frozen baby woolly mammoth.

So begins MAMMOTHS AND MASTODONS: TITANS OF THE ICE AGE, written by Cheryl Bardok, in conjunction with an exhibit at The Field Museum in Chicago. This book is everything I could hope for in a nonfiction book for children. First, it's engaging, from beginning to end. There are stories, like the one above. There are imaginary game show scenarios, where the reader is invited to guess whether silhouettes of three different creatures are actually mammoths or mastodons. There are vignettes about what life might have been like during this time on earth--I especially loved "Teen Bull in Trouble," (page 22) where the author describes the last hours of a young Columbian mammoth, who consumes a tasty snack, then finds himself trapped in a slippery-banked South Dakota hot springs.

But what I love most about this book is that it traces the work of actual scientists. Cheryl Bardoe followed Dr. Daniel Fisher (world renowned mammoth expert and professor at the University of Michigan), Dr. Lawrence Agenbroad at the Mammoth Site of Hot Springs in South Dakota, and Jacqueline Codron, a South African biologist and elephant expert, into their work sites in the field and into their laboratories. She interviewed them extensively and took pictures of them at work. Each chapter in the book is based on a different aspect of their work as scientists. There's an entire chapter, for example, on how Dr. Fisher pieces together information about mammoths and mastodons using information from the rings in cross-sections of the tusks. Another chapter explains how Dr. Codron used information from elephant dung and tail hairs to demonstrate that an elephant population was not responsible for destruction of trees needed to feed other herbivores at Kruger National Park in South Africa.

Bardoe continually demonstrates how the work of these scientists impacts our world today. Over and over again, she links mammoths and mastodons with their modern day elephant cousins. She explores theories of why mammoths and mastodons became extinct and wonders whether that could happen to their modern day cousins. She talks about over hunting and global warming. She makes readers care about saving this species.

The book is full, full, full of incredible photographs and watercolor illustrations and maps and diagrams, sure to catch the eye of even the most reluctant of readers. Great sidebar articles such as, "Did Dinosaurs and Mammoths live at the same time?"provide readers with helpful background information. And there are, of course, the typical nonfiction tools such as headings a glossary, and references, and an index. The book would be a great resource for reviewing tools nonfiction authors use with intermediate grade readers.

A rich, rich read for intermediate grade classrooms.

P.S. There was a big discovery in Colorado this week. Read about the find of a woolly mammoth skeleton in Snowmass Village here.

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