So You Want to Be an Explorer?, by Judith St. George, illustrated by David Small

Here’s another old review of mine.  This one is less for the preschool crowd and more for elementary.

So You Want to Be an Explorer?, by Judith St. George,
illustrated by David Small
(2005, Philomel Books, ISBN 0-399-23868-9)

So You Want to Be an Explorer? is the third book written by Judith St. George and illustrated by David Small.  It follows on the heels of So You Want to Be an Inventor? and their first, the Caldecott Award-winning So You Want to Be President?  It takes the reader on a rapid-fire tour of exploration through the ages, spanning the continent and the centuries.

The text, in an eye-catching, slightly enlarged font, will attract students in the intermediate grades with its light-hearted approach to what could be a fairly dull topic if written differently.  Nearly every spread contains a new descriptor for what explorers are (“Like it or not, explorers are risk takers,” claims the page describing the feats of secretary-turned-mountain-climber Barbara Washburn and airman Chuck Yeager), followed by brief, one-paragraph summaries of the accomplishments of a few explorers who fit the bill.  Sentence structure varies greatly and informal language abounds throughout the text, creating a feeling that is both conversational and exciting.  Although the details on each explorer are scant, readers will learn more than they bargained for in each short page and will be introduced to both famous and little-known characters from history as a result.  The contents will open students’ eyes to the possibilities of being an explorer, from a king who explored vicariously without ever leaving his country to scientists who explored the very make-up of the human body, and the vast potential of what is left to be discovered.  In addition, they will be intrigued enough by the tempting pieces of information to continue their research into these historical figures in more depth in other texts.

David Small’s ink, watercolor, and pastel drawings are reminiscent of amusement park caricatures, and they will provoke just as much interest in young readers.  The colorful, dramatic sketches add interest to the large block of text on the page.  Each spread features a single large scene depicting one of the explorers described.  This may put younger, less critical readers at a disadvantage in trying to determine which explorer is being illustrated, but more sophisticated readers will pick up clues from the text to relate to the illustration (such as realizing, on pages 26 and 27, that adventurer Bjarni Herjolfsson is missing an American treasure by looking the other way).  The endpapers are illustrated to look like tools of the explorer trade (from binoculars to a biplane!) scattered over a gridded map and will draw the reader in from the start.

A glossary of the explorers mentioned appears in alphabetical order at the end of the text, giving the birth and death dates (when appropriate) along with a straightforward, one-sentence description of each explorer which often gives information in addition to what was included in the text.  It is, therefore, an invaluable resource for readers wishing to know just a little more.  The author has also included a brief bibliography of her sources which may be used to begin further research for readers needing or wanting more information than that which was provided in the text.

Post Script:

I taught fifth grade for several years, and I used this book as a read-aloud and discussion starter with my class when we studied explorers.  Because of the fun style and the fact that so many of the explorers are less known, it really kept their attention well, and the book was checked out of my classroom library after the read-aloud by students who wanted to peruse it on their own.  It’s listed on Amazon as recommended for grades 1-4, and I agree that the reading level is probably lower than upper elementary, but the somewhat easier reading level (still not necessarily what I would consider independent reading for first and second grade level readers) makes the vast amount of new subject matter more accessible since it’s slightly below the grade level of students who are likely studying explorers.

The author’s informal style and the unusual (for nonfiction books) art make these books both informative and fun.  For an introduction to the topics (because they’re not really meant for serious research resources!), I absolutely love this series of books!

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