April 01, 2010


Fangs! By Heather Dakota & Tammi Salzano. Designed by Leanne Thomas. Photographs from www.critterzone.com. Tangerine Press/Scholastic. $8.99.

Poison! By Tammi Salzano & Heather Dakota. Designed by Michelle Martinez Design, Inc. Photographs from www.critterzone.com and other sources. Tangerine Press/Scholastic. $8.99.

Dr. Seuss Happy Graduation Gift Set: Oh, the Places You’ll Go! Scholastic. $14.99.

     Scholastic does so many kinds of books so well that it is bound to slip up now and then. Fangs! is a slip – a book filled with (++++) photos but with (+) text, a flawed premise and an inaccurate title. The clever cover, showing multiple open-mouthed animals with their fangs prominently displayed, will likely lead many parents and children to pick up the book – but this is one that you really have to look through carefully before buying. First of all, it is only partly about fangs, including lots of animals without them as well as ones with them. Secondly, the suggested age range of seven and up is too old for the super-simple text, which defines such words as “retract” and contains such comments as, “Dogs are smart” and “Snakes do not have legs.” The text is at its worst when trying to explain, obliquely, what the many creatures in this book are doing there: “Bees have a stinger instead of fangs.” “Mosquitoes…do not have fangs.” Sometimes, readers will expect an explanation when none is forthcoming: “Elephants have tusks” (are they similar to fangs?). “Hippos use their teeth for fighting” (are their teeth fangs?). Furthermore, the text is so incomplete as to border on inaccuracy. “Snake fangs are hollow” – true, but the authors never mention that only poisonous snakes have fangs, making matters worse by saying there are 2,700 different kinds of snakes and implying that all have fangs and thus are poisonous (in reality, there are fewer than 400 kinds of poisonous snakes). Even the brief facts about the animals are misleading. For example, “a copperhead has a triangle-shaped head” – true, but so do many other snakes, as the photos themselves make clear, so the head shape is not an identifying characteristic. But those photos are just wonderful, and they are what salvage this book and may make some families want to own it. CritterZone is a supplier of nature photos to publishers and other businesses that need animal pictures – and its photos are excellent, with vibrant colors and wonderful detail. The spider photos in Fangs! are especially good, but the gorgeous pictures of snakes are a highlight as well – from the rattler facing the camera and apparently about to strike (its rattle clearly visible), to the cobra with its spread hood. It is a real shame that the text of this book is so inferior to its excellent visuals.

     And it didn’t have to be so. Poison! is by the same writing team (although their names are listed in reverse order); most of its photos come from the same source, with some from alternative suppliers such as Getty Images; the book’s design, despite the different attribution, is nearly identical. But this book really works, simply because it stays focused entirely on its title. All the animals shown here use poison in one way or another – and some of those ways are fascinating. Even readers who are familiar with poisonous snakes and black widow spiders may not know about the saddleback caterpillar, which injects poison through hollow hairs; the male platypus, which has poison-injecting spikes on its hind feet; or the short-tailed shrew, which has venom in the glands of its lower jaw. When Scholastic does this sort of book well, it does it very well indeed: Poison! is packed with interesting information (in small, easily digestible doses), excellent photos and some really offbeat facts – for example, stingray venom (from the spine at the end of the animal’s tail) was used by ancient Greek dentists to numb patients against pain.

     The Dr. Seuss Happy Graduation Gift Set is a very different kind of Scholastic product. Parents have to be careful about one thing here: the set looks as if it contains a copy of Oh, the Places You’ll Go! – but it doesn’t, and is not clearly labeled along the lines of “book sold separately.” That misleading packaging keeps the set to a (+++) rating, but many families will nevertheless enjoy what it does contain: a set of amusingly celebratory items for children as young as age three. Inside the book-size packaging is a box with the book’s title and some of its many brightly swirling colors on top. And inside that box are color-coordinated (and book-coordinated) objects ranging from a greeting card with envelope to a diploma emblazoned with a Seussian elephant to a door hanger with the message, “Graduate Inside! Please Knock.” There are also magnets, a bookmark topped with the boy from the book wearing a graduation cap, stickers, a photo frame and – biggest if not necessarily best of all – a banner proclaiming “Congratulations on Your Graduation!” Different kids will enjoy different enclosures to a greater or lesser extent: the small jigsaw puzzle, for example, will be more fun for the youngest recipients (preschool or kindergarten graduates, perhaps?), while the “Graduation Journal” will be of more interest to older kids who like the idea of writing about the places they’ll go. Fans of Oh, the Places You’ll Go! will naturally gravitate to this gift box, and will not be disappointed by its contents. In families with parent fans of the book, it would be better to get children the book itself first and follow up with the gift box if and only if the kids thoroughly enjoy reading the work in its original form.

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