Dogs, wild animals and ocean creatures: Nonfiction middle grade books all perfect for gift giving

Some informative books that will get children enjoying reading nonfiction are available just in time for the holidays. But even after the holidays, these books are wonderful choices for not only classrooms and libraries, but also for home bookshelves. Adults will enjoy learning about dogs, wild animals, and ocean creatures, too.

what the dog knows“What the Dog Knows” by Cat Warren is the middle grade version of her adult book, “What the Dog Knows: Scent, Science, and the Amazing Ways Dogs Perceive the World.” When I reviewed the adult version as the National Book Reviewer for, I wrote: “The author doesn’t just talk about her experience. She explains the training and science labs. She explains what other trainers and handlers do. The reader will read about animal psychologists, forensic anthropologists, breeders and scent researchers. It’s all explained in an easy-to-read yet detailed narrative. This is a fascinating book for dog lovers and for those who want to know more about how dogs help us each and every day.” In this version for younger readers (and those older readers who want the “Cliffs Notes” version), she covers the same territory. Her story about Solo, her cadaver dog, (a dog that helps find cadavers)  and how she trained Solo, is captivating. When she describes their first cadaver find, it’s thrilling because we feel as if we are going along, through the swamp, on the search with them. Warren doesn’t limit the information to her partnership with Solo; she also explains the Clever Hans phenomenon in which an apparently extremely intelligent horse was actually getting clues from his owner and even the audience, which enabled him to respond correctly to questions so long as someone knew the right answer. He fooled the experts for a long time. The author also tells the stories of other search dog teams from Afghanistan to Viet Nam. Dog lovers and budding detectives will enjoy reading and learning “What the Dog Knows.” (Simon & Schuster Books for Young Readers)

“Gross as a Snot Otter: Discovering the World’s Most Disgusting Animals” by Jess Keating is part of the “The World of Weird Animals” series, and appropriately, the first animal gross as a snot otterfeatured is a snot otter. Why are these specimens disgusting? They hide under a rock and are covered in mucus. This slippery coating helps them escape from predators and also protects their skin from cuts and infections. There are zombie worms, maggots, giraffe, and marabou stork, which eat carrion and are bald. They also have white legs because their poop coats the legs for important reasons. Some of the included animals look disgusting, others, like the giraffe, a gull, and herring do not. But there is a reason that all these animals are included, and kids will really love reading about the poop and farting and slime. While there isn’t a table of contents, the nonfiction text-features include photographs and illustrations by David DeGrand which humorously show a different view of each animal. The text includes a lighthearted part about what makes each one gross and also a sidebar with the name, species name, size, diet, and other information about the animal, including predators and threats. There is a glossary at the end. Middle grade readers will devour this book, which deserves a place in school libraries. (Alfred A. Knopf)

into the deep“Into the Deep: An Exploration of Our Oceans” by Annika Siems and Wolfgang Dreyer is a large book (approximately 12 inches square) that is as suited for the coffee table as it is for a child’s classroom or library. While the book is intended for middle grade readers, older kids and even adults will learn from and marvel at the incredibly lovely illustrations and the information presented on the expensive-feeling, heavyweight paper. Most of the pages have dark backgrounds, a choice which smartly illustrates the deep waters of the ocean where no light filters. The information is presented as a narrative of what is happening from the point of view of those inside the submersible and information about the creatures they are seeing outside the windows in the often frigid waters. For example, on the page labeled “Chamber of Horrors” the anglerfish, also known as the black seadevil, is described. “The beam of our headlight reveals a fish that looks a bit like a monster. It is about the size of a baseball and has a gaping mouth full of needle sharp teeth. On top of its head is a long, curved dorsal spine with what seems to be a lantern at the end.” On the mostly-black double spread is a large illustration of the fish and white line illustrations of different species of anglerfish, along with information about the different species and where the anglerfish can be found. In addition to the black seadevil, many other creatures of the deep are the stuff of nightmares: Deep sea hatchetfish, viperfish, fangtooth fish, and others, are all beautifully and frighteningly captured by the brilliant artwork. This is another wonderful choice for the classroom and school library. It’s also a fine pick for teaching nonfiction text features; it has an illustrated table of contents at the beginning and an index at the end of the book. (Prestel)

And suitable for readers from five to fifteen is Coyote Peterson’s “Wildlife Adventure: An interactive guide with facts, photos, and more!” It’s a fact-filled, photograph-filled book wildlife adventurefollowing the adventures of the YouTube star as he travels the world sharing his knowledge of animals that live in different habitats from the African savanna to the rainforest and tidal pools. There are stickers for kids to put on the illustrations as they wish. A few are a bit cheesy, like the ones of Coyote Peterson in various poses pointing or looking through binoculars. Most are of the different kinds of animals that live around the world. Also in the book are crosswords, mazes, word-searches,  quizzes, and places to use some of the stickers to answer questions. It’s a fun read although kids should be very aware that the dangerous wild animals that Coyote Peterson is interacting with are probably in sanctuaries. No one should look at these pictures and decide to go interact with a baby bear! (Little, Brown and Company Books for Young Readers)

Please note: This review is based on the final books provided by the publishers for review purposes. 

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