February 22, 2007


Extreme Pets! By Jane Harrington. Scholastic. $12.99.

Guinness World Records to the Extreme. Compiled by Lisa L. Ryan-Herndon. Scholastic. $14.99.

      The extremes to which publishers will go to draw attention to a book – including overuse of the word “extreme” – are nothing new. Once in a while, though, the word shows up on a book that is…well…extremely fascinating, such as Extreme Pets! This is the most interesting child-oriented pet book in a dog’s age (sorry about that). Spiral bound so it lies flat and can be used for easy reference, tabbed so families can quickly locate sections called “Cold-Blooded!” and “Pocket Pets!” and “Insects!” and “Slimy Pets!” – yup, all with exclamation points – the book gives some really neat information on a wide variety of animals, plus well-thought-out, practical tips on taking care of them. Each animal gets a “Report Card” in five categories: coolness, aroma, neatness, ease of care and cost factor; and there are occasional additions – for instance, a ferret gets a C for “aroma (if you’re clean)” and a D for “aroma (if you’re not).”

      The presentation aspects of Extreme Pets! are what make it so attractive. A rather unfortunately titled but very useful “Ask the Pet Whiz” column for each animal gets into details of habits and care, while introductory information on each critter places a decided emphasis on the coolness/ickiness factor: “The MADAGASCAN HISSING COCKROACH is, without a doubt, the COOLEST COCKROACH on the planet. It’s BIG and SLOW, and it CRAWLS ALL OVER YOU! Life doesn’t get much better than this, does it?” Many parents won’t approve – they’re not necessarily supposed to, according to the text, although kids do have to get permission (and money) if they’re going to keep any of these animals at home – but the bright writing, excellent photography and well-done care hints make this book top-notch in almost every way. It even has occasional recipes for animal treats – “happy rat munchies,” for example. But be slightly cautious about accepting the book’s science at face value. In discussing the African pygmy hedgehog, for example, Jane Harrington writes, “Unlike the porcupine [sic], the hedgehog’s quills are not barbed weapons that can be shot out of its body when it’s mad.” The big problem here is not the grammar (it should be “porcupine’s”) but the science: porcupines do not shoot their quills – the quills are very lightly attached, and come off easily if the animal comes under attack. So there are imperfections in Extreme Pets! – but if you want to consider keeping a bearded dragon, sugar glider, giant African millipede, red-eyed tree frog or another of the unusual animals profiled here, this book is an excellent place to learn what you’ll need to do after you get the animal home.

      Animals appear in Guinness World Records to the Extreme as well, but as objects of curiosity and amazement – certainly not as potential pets. This entry in the multifaceted Guinness World Records series explains that the largest mammal jaw belongs to the sperm whale; the polar bear has the most sensitive nose of any land mammal; a tropical cockroach holds the record as fastest-moving insect; and the most expensive painting by an elephant sold for $39,000. There are also plenty of record-setting feats by human animals, from loudest burp to longest ear hair (several of these human records may make you prefer non-human animals). Filled with “Trivia Tidbits” and “Did You Know?” items, this book is laid out to seem as dramatic as possible, but in fact, some of its contents are fairly mundane: the Venus flytrap and related bladderwort hold the record for fastest entrapment by a plant; the “golden age” of comics “introduced a new art form that blended colorful images and short stories about fictional superheroes”; the great white shark can grow to more than 15 feet. There’s enough of interest here to earn the book a (+++) rating, but even though it’s an interesting set of records, it falls short of being extremely interesting.

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