Bird Brains


 Crow Smarts: Inside the Brain of the World’s Brightest Bird, by Pamela S. Turner, photographs by Andy Comins, illustrations by Guido de Filippo; Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, $18.99, 80 pages, ages 8-12.

It’s back-to-school time, and what better way to celebrate the return to class than with a book highlighting the intelligence of an oft-maligned creature, the crow. But not all corvids are created equal; the inhabitants of the French Overseas Territory of New Caledonia are considered “geniuses” and have been the subject of many fascinating studies on animal behavior. This particular subspecies has learned to create and implement a variety of tools for gathering food. For example, crows coax tasty grubs out of their hiding places by using hooks with a curved edge, and New Caledonian crows manufacture their tools from a local barb-edged plant. Scientists have even discovered that crows hold their tools along the right side or left side of their head–instead of being right- or left-handed, crows exhibit right- or left-laterality.

Award-winning nonfiction author (and crow rehabilitator) Pamela S. Turner takes readers on a lively tour of the world of New Caledonian crows by explaining what traits set these birds apart from their cousins abroad, how they’ve adapted to their environment, and what scientists are learning about the evolving field of animal intelligence. In a book geared to middle-grade readers, Turner successfully discusses complicated concepts like cumulative cultural evolution and various properties of intelligence by making the material approachable and providing facts that only a nine-year old could love (e.g., why crows eat the eyeballs off carrion). That also means a lot of references to Jedi warriors and other Star Wars characters, and the chief corvid scientist is referred to as “Gavin” rather than “Dr. Hunt.”

Crow scientist Guido de Filippo’s charming crow sketches are peppered throughout, and crisp photographs of crows at work by Andy Comins reinforce the concept that humans aren’t the only creatures capable of intelligent thought.


Crow Smarts confirms Henry Beecher Stowe’s comment (and opening epigraph) that “if men had wings and bore black feathers, few of them would be clever enough to be crows.” Turner’s latest scientific adventure would make a wonderful addition to any elementary-school library or back-to-school present for budding scientists.


(via Collectival: Writing Code That Sings to Antiquarians – The Fine Books Blog)

During the depths of winter six months ago, Schubertiade Music & Arts co-founders Gabe Boyers and Drew Massey debuted a preview version of their web-based cataloging software at the California Antiquarian Book Fair. On August 15 the software, dubbedCollectival, became available to antiquarian dealers with the goal of streamlining running a rare books shop from anywhere in the world…. [Read more on the Fine Books Blog!]   

(via Eat Your Vegetables, Antiquarian-Style – The Fine Books Blog)

In more civilized times, proponents of a meatless
regime adhered to the “Pythagorean diet” championed by that Greek sixth
century B.C. philosopher, who, in addition to figuring out the square of
the hypotenuse, believed that all living beings had souls, and it was
wrong to eat them. 

Master bookbinder Tim Ely’s elaborate
art books are a sophisticated otherworldly mash-up of landscapes,
diagrams, and architecture meant to inspire and provoke. The Snohomish,
Washington, native has been making books for almost his entire life,
finding inspiration on heaven and in earth, fusing science and art with
paper and ink. Now, contemporary art bookbinding specialist Abby Schoolman Books is presenting eight of his recently completed art books for sale in a catalog entitled Timothy C. Ely 8 Books. 

 (via The Alchemy of Book Art: 8 Works by Tim Ely – The Fine Books Blog)

(via The Summer of Hamilton – The Fine Books Blog

Has the Tony Award-winning Broadway musical Hamilton reached its zenith? After a twelve-month run that grossed $90 million dollars in ticket sales, the show’s creator, Lin-Manuel Miranda, made his final appearance onstage in June. Now, doorbuster ticket prices are dipping below $500 per seat. Still, if that’s too rich for your blood, check out the New-York Historical Society’s museum-wide celebration of America’s first Secretary of the Treasury and his influence shaping the U.S. government.

A Guide to Self-Published Books, Part 2 of 3



Our tour of self-published children’s picture books continues this week with Mama Loved to Worry, by Maryann Weidt and illustrated by Rachel Balsaitis.

Mama Loved to Worry, by Maryann Weidt, illustrated by Rachel Balsaitis;
Minnesota Historical Society, $16.95, 32 pages, ages 4-8.

Who’s the publisher?
* The Minnesota Historical Society (MNHS) is a non-profit organization based in St. Paul devoted to preserving and promoting the history and culture of Minnesota. The MNHS was incorporated in 1849 and is one of the largest and most prestigious historical societies in the U.S.

* The MNHS is a member of the American Association of University Presses, a non-profit that provides marketing assistance to over 130 member presses.

* The book is 10 x 10, fully illustrated, and 32 pages long—all industry standards for children’s picture books.

* The book has been properly formatted with title pages, front and rear flyleaves, and ISBN information.

* The author and illustrator are properly cited for their contributions.

How’s the book?
* Mama Loved to Worry is a tall tale that takes place on a Midwestern farm—Mama is a “world-class worrywart” and there’s plenty to ruffle her feathers on Daisy Dell Farm. When she’s not knitting, sewing, or cooking, Mama saves Baby Eli from loose pigs, popping corn, and even a twister. Mama’s something of a homespun Wonder Woman—even though she’s clad in blue overalls, there’s something decidedly other-worldly about her ability to hold down the fort. Rich in local colloquialism, the book offers a fanciful glimpse of rural life on a farm.

* Author Maryann Weidt is a Minnesota librarian and won the Minnesota Book Award for her previous children’s book, Daddy Played Music for the Cows. (Unlike the Mom’s Choice Awards, which are pay-to-play awards, the Minnesota Book Awards are presented by the Friends of the St. Paul Library System.) Weidt conducted research about Minnesota farms by visiting the Gale Family Library, part of the Minnesota History Center and the MNHS. 

* Illustrator Rachael Balsaitis is also a Minnesota native and has illustrated other state-themed books like Annie’s Plaid Shirt and Love is Forever. The artwork appears to be rendered in watercolor, though a quick note explaining the medium would be helpful.

* This charming book offers a look at how one woman deals with life’s worries while also offering a glimpse of family farms, a way of life that’s all but disappeared from the American landscape.

Final Thoughts:
* The author and illustrator conducted research at the MNHS to create this book, and their knowledge is demonstrated throughout.

* This book will appeal to Midwesterners proud of their heritage as well as travelers to the state in search of a sweet memento for their children.

* Mama Loved to Worry is one in a series of picture books celebrating the state of Minnesota that have been recently published by MNHS Press, meeting the Society’s overriding mission of educational initiatives geared towards children.

As a side note, many institutions in Minnesota are dedicated to enriching the lives of children through storytelling—the Minnesota Center for Book Arts is another vibrant nonprofit advancing the book as a form of contemporary art and expression, while also teaching and preserving the craft of bookmaking. (See my article “The Young Illuminators” in the Winter 2015 issue of Fine Books & Collections Magazine where I discuss the MCBA and other institutions fighting back against the decline of arts funding for children.)

The final installment of this series will examine a book written by a former model-turned animal activist.

Tweet me your experiences with self-published children’s books @B_Basbanes

Self-Published Children’s Books: What to Look for (Part 1 of 3)

Self-published books have made great strides towards legitimacy in recent years, with scores of companies ready to help anyone (at any budget) put their ideas to paper and ink. The genre once completely dedicated to catering to vanity publications–and much of the industry still does–can confidently claim itself capable of producing professional-quality titles outside the traditional publishing sphere.

In fact, many traditional, “legacy” publishing houses operate vanity imprints–Archway is a division of Simon & Schuster, Partridge India and BookCountry are partners with Penguin, and Westbow Press is owned HarperCollins. Until recently, Author Solutions and iUniverse were divisions of Penguin Random House as well. These outlets provide sorely-needed revenue for an industry still negotiating this brave new world of on-demand publishing.

Still, when everything on Amazon is slapped with an ISBN, published
by a fancy-sounding company, promoted by publicists, and endorsed by award-bestowing entities, buying a self-published book is nothing
less than caveat lector.

All that being said, it seems timely now to offer examples of independently and self-published books, and explain what sets them apart from a sea of titles created purely for self-validation. Many children’s picture books have come a long way from being amateur attempts at authorship to items savvy consumers might actually want to purchase and read.

This is the first of three posts that will discuss various examples of children’s picture books offered by the self-publishing industry, and what smart consumers should look for before buying.

First up:

What does a family look like?, created by Christine Burger; Purposeful Goods, $12.95, 26 pages, ages 3-5.

First, let’s look at the packaging:

  • Though emblazoned with a gold “Mom’s Choice Award Honoring Excellence,” this is a pay-to-play award, where a base fee of $500 nets an applicant 250 award seals (to be affixed to books), an MCA-sponsored media release, and a dedicated winner’s page with links to the book’s website, among other goodies. $1,500 gets a written endorsement from the award company’s executive director, which the Buddy Boodles series also displays.
  • Physically, the laminate-wrapped hardcover looks and feels like any other picture book. The art too, looks professionally rendered, though no credit is given to the illustrator.
  • The page count is a giveaway that this was manufactured by a vanity press–32 pages is the typical picture-book standard, What does a family look like? runs 30 pages and lacks end sheets.
  • The title does not follow basic capitalization conventions, offering further evidence that the book was not copy-edited by a professional. 

Next, the publishing house:

  • Purposeful Goods is a San-Jose, California-based subsidiary of Noodle and Boo, a high-end “natural” skin-care company along the lines of Jessica Alba’s Honest Company. Boodles, the trademarked cuddly monkey (whose likeness is also available for purchase in plush format through the company website) appears in all three of the inaugural Purposeful Goods titles.
  • There is an altruistic element to Purposeful Goods, where a portion of sales go towards charitable endeavors.

Now, to the content itself:

  • In What does a family look like? Boodles introduces readers to all the different kinds of family dynamics–families with one mother, families with two daddies, and so on. The subject matter, though instructive, is, unfortunately, uninspiring.
  • The illustrations are equally insipid yet completely
    inoffensive–a perfect combination sure to appeal to well-intentioned
    folks looking to complete a swanky baby-shower gift basket or birthday

  • This is the kind of book that might find turn up in the office of a elementary school counselor or social worker.

Final thoughts:

  • The Mom’s Choice Awards are fancy product endorsement, and consumers would be smart to do their own research first. However, for  readers who don’t mind the blatant product placement, this title is an unobjectionable, perfectly PC choice.

Next time, we’ll look at a picture book published by a Midwestern historical society.