October 18, 2007


Mary and the Mouse, the Mouse and Mary. By Beverly Donofrio. Illustrated by Barbara McClintock. Schwartz & Wade. $16.99.

Diary of a Fly. By Doreen Cronin. Pictures by Harry Bliss. Joanna Cotler/HarperCollins. $15.99.

Scholastic Question & Answer Series: Do Tarantulas Have Teeth? By Melvin & Gilda Berger. Illustrated by Jim Effler. Scholastic. $6.99.

      As wonderful as real-world animals can be, there’s nothing like fictionalized and anthropomorphized critters to attract the attention of children – especially young ones. Mary and the Mouse, the Mouse and Mary is a particularly charming multigenerational story of humans and humanlike mice sharing the same house without ever quite interacting – until the very end of the book. The first part is about Mary and her family – and a mouse and hers – living parallel lives, which include going to school in matching dresses and learning many of the same things (drawing, reading, counting and singing) in somewhat different ways (Mary shakes musical rattles; the mouse clashes the tops of acorns together). Mary and the mouse discover each other by accident one night, but they never really become friends: Mary’s parents have warned her about mice carrying diseases and biting, and the mouse’s parents have warned her about sneaky humans and their mousetraps. So girl and mouse merely see each other once in a while – and miss each other when both grow up and move away. And then Mary and the mouse both have daughters (parents: don’t spoil the story by pointing out the impossibility of this happening at the same time, because of differing lifespans!). The pattern repeats itself – until one marvelous night when human and mouse daughters both break through their species’ fears and prejudices at exactly the same time. Beverly Donofrio’s wonderful writing and Barbara McClintock’s charming illustrations make this impossible fairy tale a delight from start to finish.

      Diary of a Fly is fun in a very different way. Doreen Cronin does give her heroine human characteristics, but she merges them with real-world fly facts in a manner that emphasizes the humorous incongruity of the story – which Harry Bliss illustrates to make it even more enjoyable. This is a fly who goes to school, worrying before the first day that she may not fit in because she may be the only one who likes regurgitated food – and is delighted when she finds out that everyone likes regurgitated food. This fly learns the hard way about flypaper, when 87 of her 327 siblings get stuck to it. She gets a science assignment to “observe something creepy,” so she picks a human first-grader – who, she concludes, is “disgusting” but who doesn’t taste too bad. She makes an “All About Me” book that traces her life from egg to maggot to “first day with a head” and beyond. And so on. Cronin neatly works facts into the story – flies beat their wings 200 times per second and fly at an average speed of 4.5 miles per hour – but her main purpose is clearly amusement. Check out the inside front and back covers, which show, among other things, “Great-great grandmother with Babe Ruth” and the fly’s friend, spider, who is “soooooooo good at soccer!”

      For a full book of facts about real-life creatures, including insects, the latest reprint from the excellent Scholastic Question & Answer Series is a particularly interesting place to turn. The reason is that Do Tarantulas Have Teeth? focuses on poisonous creatures – including some with which many kids will be familiar (tarantulas, king cobras) and many that they may learn about for the first time (the blue-ringed octopus, whose poison is more deadly than that of any land animal and which kills more people than any shark; the bulldog ant of Australia, which grows up to a full inch long, attacks in huge numbers and doesn’t let go). Like Melvin & Gilda Berger’s other 48-page books in this series, this one – originally published in 1999 – contains some really fascinating tidbits: honeybees kill as many people in the United States each year as all poisonous snakes put together; in ancient Rome, some prisoners sentenced to death were covered in honey and left near a hive of wasps, which killed them by stinging; the great general Hannibal once won a war by using poisonous snakes – he threw jars of them onto the decks of enemy ships, panicking the sailors so much that they surrendered. The Bergers correctly put dangerous animals in perspective – only one-fifth of all types of snakes are poisonous, and only one-quarter of the poisonous ones can kill people; and humans are not the main target of any poisonous creature in the world. Still, there are plenty of real-world chills in this book, and Jim Effler’s illustrations give kids and parents a clear idea of what to watch for – and watch out for.

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