March 16, 2006


Mammoths on the Move. By Lisa Wheeler. Illustrated by Kurt Cyrus. Harcourt. $16.

Yellow Elephant: A Bright Bestiary. By Julie Larios. Illustrated by Julie Paschkis. Harcourt. $16.

     Start with exceptionally clever poetry that tells the tale of mammoths’ migration 14,000 years ago, mix it with highly detailed illustrations of the mammoths and their world, and you have a real winner of a book.  Mammoths on the Move, for ages 4-8, tells how mammoth herds moved south as winter intensified each year, eventually reaching areas where edible vegetation still grew – and then heading back north as the southern weather grew too warm.  That’s the whole story, but it is told with a great deal of charm and some really well-thought-out rhymes and half-rhymes: “They grazed on grass and arctic moss/ that grew above the permafrost.”  “By instinct pulled, by hunger drawn,/ they traveled on – and on – and on.”  Every few pages, Lisa Wheeler throws in a descriptive or admonitory message: “Watch out, woolly mammoths!” “Wide and woolly mammoths!”  These few words, set in red type rather than black, serve as a sort of chorus accompanying the mammoths on their trek.  And page after page, Kurt Cyrus uses detailed drawing and unusual angles to bring the mammoths’ journey alive.  One two-page spread shows a single huge animal’s legs and the end of its trunk as the mammoth marches by, left to right, while a terrified rabbit rushes out of its way.  Another illustration shows a procession of adult and young mammoths in medium close-up from behind; another shows a close-up frontal view of a baby mammoth next to its mother’s huge flank.  The result of Wheeler’s words and Cyrus’ illustrations is to make the mammoth migration fascinating without anthropomorphizing the animals.  The scientific accuracy of the description of the animals’ trek results in a learning experience that is also a reading and viewing adventure.

     There are no mammoths living anymore, but their cousins, the elephants, are still around (though increasingly threatened).  One such beast – but with no pretense to reality – is the title creature in Yellow Elephant: A Bright Bestiary.  Julie Larios’ poetry does not have the verve and spirit of Wheeler’s.  It is mostly in free verse, but when Larios does attempt rhymes, they tend to be rather lame: “I think no other animal can/ (I know a mosquito can’t)/ glow in the jungle sun/ like a wild-eared yellow elephant.”  But this is not a narrative book: it is a book of impressions, especially impressions of color.  You’ll find an orange giraffe here, and a purple puppy, and a black fish, and a turquoise lizard, and many more exotically (and usually unrealistically) colored animals.  Julie Pashkis’ paintings are whimsical and charming, showing the animals’ anatomy accurately but adding surreal elements: a blue turtle, for example, has a barefoot sprite sitting in a chair on its back, holding three blue flowers, while a brown mouse sports clown pants and party hat.  Intended for ages 5-10, Yellow Elephant will have more appeal at the younger end of that age range: it is a very pretty picture book, but its poetry will not be to all children’s tastes.

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