May 03, 2007


Snakes Don’t Miss Their Mothers. By M.E. Kerr. HarperTrophy. $5.99.

Snakes. By Seymour Simon. Collins. $6.99.

      Here are new paperbacks of previously released books about animals – slithery and otherwise. And here is a case where the fictional work may be more useful than the factual one.

      Snakes Don’t Miss Their Mothers, originally published in 2003 and now available in paperback, is the story of the ultra-benevolent Critters animal shelter and the animals that live in or (if possible) pass through it. It’s almost unbelievably good-hearted, as M.E. Kerr makes it a point to tug the heartstrings at every possible opportunity – even setting the story in the Christmas season, the better to emphasize giving and receiving and love and all those other good things. The book is sappy, yes, but it’s sassy as well, thanks in large part to two characters: a one-eyed cat and a snake. The cat, a purebred Siamese named Placido, once belonged to an opera singer who also had a parrot – and lost an eye when he attacked the bird one time too many. Placido is an unreconstructed bird-chaser (a fact that almost leads him to disaster again), is a very difficult animal to place (he has a huge array of ways of upsetting humans and keeps being returned to Critters), and ends up trying hard to adjust to being chosen to live on, of all things, a boat. The snake is a king snake named Marshall, from whom the book gets its title: “My mother left me when I was just an egg. …She never visited me on weekends or came around at Christmas. …I was off catching grasshopper larvae when I was one week old. We snakes don’t miss our mothers.” But Marshall has a softer side, too, and is something of a philosopher: “An impossible dream was different from hope, for it was understood that it was just a dream. But hope was the worst of all evils, for it only prolonged misery.” The hope of all the animals, of course, is to be adopted by loving, caring humans. The people in Kerr’s book are far less charming than the animals, although some are amusing – notably Jimmie, a would-be child actress who can’t even seem to make it as a cookie crumb in a TV commercial. The various human and animal stories are intertwined with mentions of the soap opera, “Days of Our Lives,” and pretty much everything ends warmly and happily, except that it is made clear that the need for Critters will continue indefinitely. That’s the book’s usefulness – as a reminder of the many wonderful animals available for adoption, all of them (yes, snakes too) awaiting a big dose of human love (or at least, in the case of snakes, the warmth of human handling).

      Seymour Simon’s Snakes dates to 1992, and the new printing is described as a revised edition, but as gorgeous as the photos are (the book is a collaboration with the Smithsonian Institution), the work gives a somewhat skewed picture of the world of these fascinating reptiles. For example, Simon correctly notes that some three-quarters of all snakes are nonvenomous – but half the book’s photos are of venomous species. In discussing the largest snakes, Simon writes, “Some biologists argue that the reticulate [sic] python can be as long as an anaconda,” but in fact the official record for the world’s largest snake is held by a reticulated (with a “d”) python that measured just under 33 feet. And there was considerable controversy in late 2003 – not mentioned in Simon’s book – when a python that was supposedly 49 feet long was displayed in Indonesia (it was later found to be much shorter). Children ages 5-9 – this book’s intended audience – are unlikely to have independent knowledge of such things, and will probably use Simon’s Snakes to get the basic facts about these animals. It does get most of those basics right, but there are enough omissions and inaccuracies to drop the book to a (++) rating – with a suggestion that parents attracted by the beautiful pictures and comfortable 32-page length use the book only as the most basic of introductions, one that will hopefully inspire young children to learn much more about these amazing reptiles somewhere else.

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