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Book Reviews

Cells: An Owner’s Handbook

by Carolyn Fisher

Little Cloud: The Science of a Hurricane

by Johanna Wagstaffe and Julie McLaughlin (ill.)

Two non-fiction picture books offer crash courses in biology and meteorology by way of unconventional instructors.         

Ellie, a skin cell living on the bum of a Boston terrier, delivers an exuberant rundown of cell structure and function in Cells: An Owner’s Handbook. This kid-friendly manual outlines cellular specifications (“Congratulations! You are the owner of 37 trillion high-performance cells”); describes organelles and their jobs; and covers required maintenance (“Your cells’ mitochondria need food, water, and oxygen to make energy for your body”). An unlimited warranty promises that with “proper recycling and replacements, you should have enough cells to last your whole life!” Footnotes, labelled diagrams, and phonetic pronunciation guides add to the overall value.    

Each stylized page by Calgary author and artist Carolyn Fisher pulsates with energetic details, from lively, somersaulting skeletons with technicolour innards to the swirling fluidity in background patterns. The text and illustrations work together to reinforce concepts, and many of the spreads would make snazzy science room mnemonic posters: “a cell is an itty-bitty building block” is spelled out in isometric, grid-based 3D architectural lettering.

Humour courses through the unstuffy narration. To explain mitosis, Ellie shows a “cellfie, I mean a selfie” from the last time she replicated herself. Before wrapping up the lessons, she gets in one final sciencey joke (“a skin cell divides about every 14 days, so … I gotta split!”).  Endnotes offer a recap and further reading suggestions. This cellular celebration is a real page-turner, and also a slickly robust resource.

In Little Cloud: The Science of a Hurricane, by CBC senior meteorologist Johanna Wagstaffe, a cumulus cloud has big aspirations. Born off the west coast of Africa from billions of tiny water droplets, this white, puffy, cotton ball cloud with black button eyes and a rosy-cheeked grin gets carried along by the breeze and soon grows Popeye muscles. When the dervish reaches tropical storm status, scientists officially give him a proper name: Nate. The cloud loves his elevation to hurricane status, proudly pointing out his features on an anatomy chart, noting “his favorite part was his eye.” The storm’s imminent arrival on a town’s doorsteps captures headlines. Although never making it to land as a hurricane, Nate still cuts a swath of damage before his whirlwind journey comes full circle, and he completes the water cycle by changing back into droplets.    

The fictional narrative is unwaveringly subdued. Devoid of any wicked-weather dramatic flair, this “little cloud that wanted to become a hurricane” is a real softy, but is slowly coming to terms with his power: “[He] didn’t want to scare the people down below!” and later longs to “bring some good weather to people instead.” Even the reactions of those caught in Nate’s path are reserved. Vancouver illustrator Julie McLaughlin’s digitally collaged, comic-flavoured spreads show a group of children turn their worried faces skyward, in hopes that Nate will miss them; they seem blithely unfazed when he does strike. During the aftermath, a girl cheerily rakes up fallen debris, and a boy gives a friendly wave from a living room window while the surrounding scenery shows boarded-up homes, snapped tree limbs, and leaning utility poles.      

There is solid reporting in the weather-fact sections that are included on every page. These easy-to-understand explanations cover tropical cyclones, storm surges, satellite image forecasting, and more. A bit of passion is finally conveyed in endnotes that share sobering statistics (Hurricane Katrina killed more than 1,800 people and caused more than $150 billion in damage), touch on climate change, and include Wagstaffe’s personal fascination with extreme forces of nature, along with her experience as a journalist on location covering a Category 5 storm.

With its muted tone, Little Cloud is a clear introduction to meteorology, and successfully conveys the reassuring message that science “can help people stay safe.”