Monday, June 2, 2014

Nonfiction Monday: Toby by Stacy A. Nyikos, illustrations by Shawn Sisneros

I don't usually review unsolicited titles - and I'll be honest, I have not been impressed with Sky Pony's titles in the past and generally avoid them. However, the cover on this book was appealing and I am always looking for read-aloud nonfiction so I decided to give it a chance.

The endpages have stylized black turtles with a pattern of blue dots on their shells and around their eyes. Very attractive. The title page has an image in black and white that was very confusing until I stared at it for a few minutes and realized it's the mother turtle's track in the sand. She's a dark blobby shadow at the end. Under the title itself is a collection of turtle eggs with a tiny blue-shelled turtle curled in one. The first page of the story includes all of the publication information and acknowledgements on the left and the first page of the story on the right. The background is blown-up turtle eggs with the holes where the turtles left and Toby poking his head out. The story continues with Toby discovering he's been left behind by the other turtle hatchlings. He's scared and unsure, but hears a song that calls him out of the egg and towards the ocean. A bird offers to help him, but Toby feels scared and refuses. He slides down dunes, buries a crab in sand, and then accidentally wakes up a crocodile by getting sand in his mouth. He offers to help and crawls into the crocodile's mouth even though he's scared, but gets sneezed out and lands in the ocean. The crocodile chases him, but he hides in the seaweed and gets a good meal. He then swims out to sea and finds all his siblings. A final page labeled "Turtle Treats" narrates the life cycle of baby turtles and gives a few books for further reading.

Some of the art is interesting, but most of it is oddly blown up and fuzzy. It uses digital mediums badly, looking slick and poorly drawn, and is laid out in a confusing way. The overblown illustrations might work in a very large storytime or projected on a screen, but for smaller storytimes or one-on-one reading the pictures are not well-designed.

From the author's note, it's clear that she has done some research and knows at least the basic life cycle of a turtle. So I'm disappointed that she chose to write a fictionalized and completely unrealistic version of the turtle's story. When I'm looking for read-aloud nonfiction, I look for factual accounts that I can expand on with discussion, or for a strong storyline with facts that can be drawn out and discussed. The anthropomorphism is heavily emphasized and does not lend to the discussion of the turtle's life cycle. It's closer to a folktale, with all the animals talking and offering help but really being interested in eating the turtle. However, a child isn't going to have the context of the turtle's journey to understand what's fact and what's fiction. Finally, the story is written in rhyming verse and not good verse either. It appears that many of the plot points were only put in to rhyme and not to advance the story. For example,

"He paddled and he waddled
And he struggled through the sand.
His flippers were for swimming
Not for wading over land.

"I can help you," said a birdie.
"You can fly inside my bill."
It was dark and dank and smelly
And gave Toby quite a chill.

"Maybe next time," Toby said
And disappeared beneath its nose.
The birdie tried to follow,
But got tangled in a pose."

The first verse does well in giving information about the turtle's flippers, but the second does not identify the bird and the third is just ridiculous - the picture shows the bird looking at the turtle between its legs and why is it "posing" anyways? Also, calling a bird's beak a "nose" is definitely incorrect terminology.

Verdict: The quality of the art varies a lot, but it does have some good points. The story itself not only gives very little actual information about a sea turtle's life cycle, but the anthropomorphic story is told in labored and unnecessary verse. If the author could get away from the "children's books must be written in rhyme" trap that so many authors fall into and write a simple story about the actual life cycle of a turtle, it might work out - she has some nice turns of phrase here and there and is obviously passionate and interested in her subject. As it is, I couldn't recommend this book to any library. If you're looking for turtle books for storytime, go with April Pulley Sayre's Turtle, Turtle, Watch Out!

ISBN: 9780976419952; Published 2014 by Stonehorse/Sky Pony; Review copy provided by the author

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