a list of…five books about guys who wondered and discovered

Snowflake Bentley, by Jacqueline Briggs Martin, illustrated by Mary Azarian

Every winter, our family celebrates the first snowfall with a candlelight dinner in front of the big picture window, darkness indoors, floodlight illuminating the back yard and the beautiful, fresh, magical snow.  It’s one of our favorite traditions. 

Wilson Bentley, of Jericho, Vermont, loved snow just about as much as anyone who’s ever lived, I suppose.  And he dedicated himself to sharing the exquisite beauty of individual snowflakes with the world.  Beginning when he was a young boy, Bentley experimented with photographing these fairyland crystals, spending first his parents’ hard-earned savings and later his own to buy the equipment he needed to capture these fleeting, stunning designs.  The culmination of his life’s work was his book, Snow Crystals, which is still the quintessential collection of snowflake photography. 

Snowflake Bentley is a lovely telling of Bentley’s story, in prose which reflects the precise beauty of Bentley’s beloved snow crystals.  Martin makes us fall in love with this persevering man who mourned that “when a snowflake melted…just that much beauty was gone, without leaving any record behind.”  In addition to the simple storyline which a 5-year-old can appreciate, sidebars provide more advanced information for older readers.  Azarian’s illustrations are colored woodcuts, which evoke the era (1865-1931), the region, and the warmth of this scientist-artist.  This is a gem.

Close to the Wind: The Beaufort Scale, written and illustrated by Peter Malone

Captain Francis Beaufort of the British Royal Navy, was a man with more than an ordinary share of curiosity –an avid mathematician and astronomer, crack navigator and mapmaker.  As commander of his  ship in the 1800s, Beaufort created a system for classifying wind conditions.  With some modifications, his Beaufort Wind Scale is still in use today. 

One day, Beaufort jotted down a numbered scale, 0-12, in his ship’s journal.  For each number, Beaufort noted the way the sails on a British man-of-war would respond to ever-increasing wind.  Over time, the action of the waves and the conditions over land were added to his scale. 

On Beaufort’s scale, for example,“1” means that only ripples like fish scales would appear on the water, while at “4” there are

Beaufort scale 11

numerous whitecaps, and on land, dust, leaves and loose paper are raised up and blown about.   “12” is a hurricane.  Without any wind instruments, any sailor knows what to expect when the weather is described with one of these numbers. 

Peter Malone has brought far more than just the Beaufort scale to life in this fascinating book.  The book is structured around the diary of a young British midshipman on a journey from Naples to Barbados. On each page, as we move from one number to the next on the Beaufort scale, a fabulous watercolor painting depicts the scene on the water, and often the land, along this increasingly treacherous journey.  Meanwhile, topics related to wind and sailing are also explored, from the process of tacking against the wind, to the number of oak trees needed to construct the hulls of these massive ships.   Jam-packed with information, as well as beautiful, this is a book for middle-elementary and up.

The Fantastic Undersea Life of Jacques Cousteau, written and Illustrated by Dan Yaccarino

As a kid growing up in the 60s and 70s, I was very familiar with The Undersea World of Jacques Cousteau, the television series which brought this previously-unseen, fantastic world of ocean life right into our living rooms.  And, of course, the exotic Frenchman himself — Cousteau!  I’m afraid that kids today, for whom all this underwater photography and ocean-awareness is old hat, are unaware of the amazing gift Cousteau brought to all of us with his inventions and explorations. 

In this striking book, Dan Yaccarino brings us Cousteau’s story:  His childhood in France,

jacques cousteau

where, as a weak and sickly boy he swam in order to increase his strength;  his many inventions which opened up the underwater worlds and enabled them to be filmed; his pioneering oceanographic work on board the Calypso.  Yaccarino’s bold, colorful, stylized graphics work with the story fabulously, grabbing our attention right from the cover and frontpages of the book, and continuing to lend excitement and wonder to his text right to the end. 

Short, wonderful quotes from Cousteau pop up on many pages.  “The sea, once it casts its spell, holds one in its net of wonder forever,” says Cousteau on page one.  Yaccarino has very nicely captured the sense of wonder of this watery world and the man who did more than anyone else to bring it to our attention.  A concise timeline of Cousteau’s life is included.  Short and zesty enough for fairly young listeners.

The Day-Glo Brothers: The True Story of Bob and Joe Switzer’s Bright Ideas and Brand-New Colors, by Chris Barton, illustrated by Tony Persiani

There are some things that a person just never thinks of as ever having been “invented.”  They’re just…there.  Odd bits and pieces that make a difference in our lifestyles, which someone, sometime, had to think up.  Such is the case with the “shocking greens, blazing oranges, and screaming yellows” of the Day-Glo colors, invented by the Switzer brothers. 

Those blazing oranges are used to call our attention to buoys or construction cones.
Florescent yellow makes it easier to find a golf ball in the rough.
Life jackets, hunting vests, posters, street signs — when it’s really important that something

kenny scharf and his cosmic cavern

be seen, the luminous, attention-grabbing Day-Glo colors help us out. 

Turns out that someone had to invent these!  Of course.  And it turns out that it was two brothers from California, experimenting with glow-in-the-dark lamps in their basement, who persisted in concocting the right mixture to allow those colors to pop, even in full daylight.  Along the way, one of the boys enjoyed putting on magic shows, one had an unfortunate accident involving a load of ketchup bottles, and one angel food cake of their mom’s turned out a most peculiar shade of orange when the boys used her kitchen mixer for their chemical creations. 

This is an unconventional story about a couple of unconventional inventors.  The cartoon-style illustrations, painted in those really, really bright Day-Glo colors, add verve and humor to the account!

Jenny: The Airplane that Taught America to Fly, written and illustrated by David Weitzman

In 1913, Glenn Curtiss of Hammondsport, New York, and a British engineer friend, drew up plans for a new airplane, so easy to fly and so stable, that she became the hands-down favorite of pilots-in-training on both sides of the ocean, as well as army pilots during the First World War and those crazy barnstormers around the country.  People called her the Jenny. 

Glenn Curtiss loved to tinker with bicycles, motorcycles, engines, and aeroplanes.  During World War I, he  oversaw the production of about 10,000 of his Jenny airplanes, as well as his NC-4 flying boats, called Nancys.  

Weitzman’s book tells the story of the Jenny airplane through the voice of a grandmother reminiscing about her days as a pilot during WWII, as well as the flying days of her mother in the WWI era.  Historic photos from these early women pilots give a scrapbook feel to the book, while Weitzman’s fascinating technical drawings show the unique construction of the plane.  

Throughout the book, we learn interesting details about early pilots and airplane assembly, written with actual affection for the little Jenny airplane.  For those mid-late elementary especially interested in flight, this story will be particularly intriguing.