January 18, 2007


Old Turtle. By Douglas Wood. Watercolors by Cheng-Khee Chee. Scholastic. $17.95.

Owen & Mzee: The Language of Friendship. By Isabella Hatkoff, Craig Hatkoff, and Dr. Paula Kahumbu. Photographs by Peter Greste. Scholastic. $16.99.

     From the greatest of subjects to the smallest, it sometimes seems that we humans learn best and learn most when animals teach us.

     Old Turtle was an outstanding and deservedly award-winning book when first published 15 years ago.  The new Scholastic edition, which reproduces Cheng-Khee Chee’s watercolors with exceptional sensitivity, is an excellent reissue.  This is one of the very few books about God that is genuinely nondenominational and may be moving even to nonbelievers.  It works so well because Douglas Wood tells his story through animals – and through inanimate objects, such as rocks and breezes.  It is a simple story, being a parable and a tale of Aesop rolled into one.  All the beings of the world debate the nature of God, each arguing that God is like the being himself, herself or itself.  The mountain envisions God as a high, snowy peak; the star as a twinkling and shining in the far distance; the antelope as “a runner, swift and free”; and so on.  And they fall to arguing, and the argument gets louder and louder, until a seldom-heard voice commandingly tells them to STOP!  Surprised, they do – for this is the voice of Old Turtle, who rarely says anything.  And Old Turtle tells them they are all correct, and that a new race will appear on Earth that will reflect all the aspects of God.  And so humans come into the picture – except that they too fall to arguing, fighting and eventually devastating their planet and all its inhabitants.  So the voice of Old Turtle is heard again – and the book comes to a tremendously hopeful, heartwarming and upbeat conclusion that readers will wish could be true.  And perhaps it can be – if religion, so frequently turned to such evil and exclusionary purposes, can be harnessed to the notion of something greater than all people and greater than all forms of worship put together…the way Old Turtle harnesses it.

     The seriousness and intensity of Old Turtle is remarkable, but its charm is not diminished by the importance of its message – thanks to Wood’s matter-of-fact narrative and the great beauty and warmth of Chee’s watercolors.  But Owen & Mzee: The Language of Friendship is in many ways more remarkable still – and not just because of the wonderful photos by Peter Greste.  This is a real-life, real-world story: the second Scholastic book about the apparently unprecedented friendship between an orphaned baby hippopotamus named Owen and a 130-year-old giant tortoise named Mzee.  Owen was the sole survivor when the tsunami of December 26, 2004, wiped out the group of 20 or so hippos in which he was living.  Captured and moved to a wildlife sanctuary in Kenya, he formed an immediate and surprising attachment to Mzee – a real-life Old Turtle who, after some initial bad temper, accepted the young hippo and became Owen’s protector and tutor.  The photos in this new book detail the astonishing growth of this unlikely friendship – a sequence showing how each animal tries to get the other moving is really amazing.  In the simple, straightforward text, we learn something even more astonishing: tortoise and hippo communicate with sounds that neither species normally makes – they seem to have developed their very own “language of friendship.”  This book is gently instructive in its display of exceptional accommodation between two extremely different species (and why cannot humans, who are all the same species, do likewise?).  But it is also instructive in another, less happy way: as he grows, Owen is not behaving like a hippo, and seems to think of himself as some sort of giant tortoise.  For example, he eats what Mzee eats (which is not what hippos would usually eat), and when Mzee was under veterinary treatment, Owen formed a new friendship with yet another giant tortoise, Toto.  So now humans face the difficult decision of whether the amazing Owen-Mzee friendship can and should continue – and, if so, how to let it continue even as Owen grows so large that he could easily hurt Mzee unintentionally.  This story is far from over, and if its remarkable upbeat aspects now have a cloud hanging over them – well, that too is something from which we humans can learn.

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