Not just any new book on snakes!

Being a big fan of Nic Bishop’s books and photos, I pre-ordered his new book Snakes (October 2012). When my daughter saw me taking it out of the box, she snatched it from me and immediately started pouring over the photos. Stunning.

This would be a great read aloud for kinder through 5th grades. Like other books in this series, Bishop’s layout and design make the content accessible in multiple ways at multiple difficulty levels. I would recommend just showing the pictures (slowly) to students (any age) during the first experience with this book or showing the pictures and reading the captions; Bishop’s trademark center fold photo is of a Mojave rattlesnake and if you look closely, you can see one of the “snake’s heat-seeking pits, halfway between its mouth and its eye” (p. 31). A new feature Bishop has added is a note for each picture about the actual size of the snake (in real life) versus the size of the snake in the photo. For each two-page spread there is one sentence in bolder, larger print – this could be the text read aloud to younger students – reading these sentences from page to page is like reading a whole book – there is a flow and, for the most part, the sentences build on one page builds on the sentence on the previous page. You could also just choose particular pages to read aloud or read aloud during more than one period of time.

The content is refreshing and respectful of a young, intelligent, curious audience. Bishop doesn’t shy away from using terms like “brumation” (“a long deep rest” like hibernation, p. 19), but instead explains the terms clearly and supports the content with vivid photographs. He also gets at more than what we typically know about snakes, pushing us to thinking about intriguing aspects of these snakes. For example, we may typically think of snakes as ferocious predators, but Bishop positions them as mostly shy and nervous. (This is one theme for the book.) He also includes facts that will make the reader gasp in surprise. For example, when a python devours a deer – it’s “stomach balloons overnight to make room” – “its intestines, liver, and kidneys almost double in size to help digest the meal” – “even the snake’s heart swells to size to supply blood to its bigger organs” (p. 35).

Bishop includes his author’s note at the end. I always find his notes intriguing. This is his best one to date. In a personal tone, he reveals the difficulty in photographing snakes, what he learned about snakes as he observed and photographed them, and even has a note about how he couldn’t bring himself to feed the opossum to the emerald tree boa just to take a photo. Young readers/listeners will get a feel for the intimate research and commitment an author and photographer has to engage in to create a book like this.

As a primary grade teacher, I wouldn’t hesitate in sharing this book – even the picture of the African egg-eating snake “swallowing an egg four times bigger than its head” (p. 32). This is a chance to nurture fascination. Again – this would make a great read aloud for kinder-5th grade – even if you just read enough to get your students interested in picking it up for independent reading. Bishop’s book could become a literacy center – for reading response or as a companion text in a science center. He has a great website that discusses his work further and is geared towards students as his audience for this site – students could explore this site and then write a response. Sections of Bishop’s book could be used for close reading of informational text and also as mentor texts for students engaged in researching and writing about other animals. I’ve also contemplated an author study on Nic Bishop – lots of possibilities.

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