Micro Monsters: Extreme Encounters with Invisible Armies. Kingfisher. $14.99.
Savage Safari: Extreme Encounters with Animal Warriors. Kingfisher. $14.99.
How to Clean a Hippopotamus: A Look at Unusual Animal Partnerships. By Steve Jenkins & Robin Page. Houghton Mifflin. $16.
The Extreme Encounters books are, on the face of it, bald and bold attempts to pull kids ages 7-11 – primarily boys obsessed with extreme sports and intense gaming – into a visual world between book covers and, almost incidentally, into educating themselves while school is out. Cynical? Maybe on one level, but on another, these books represent just the sort of creative and clever approach that publishers are going to have to try if they want to have a chance of competing successfully with summer blockbuster movies, year-round video games, online virtual worlds and all the other attractions and distractions that occupy young people today.
Seen in that light, the books are highly successful (although it remains to be seen whether kids in the target age group will pick them up in the first place). Very heavily visual in focus, filled with flaps and foldouts and tuck-ins and charts, both books are structured as if the creatures in them have superpowers and specific strengths and weaknesses that readers (viewers?) need to analyze. Animals do have strengths and weaknesses, so most of this approach, although exaggerated and overstated, is fundamentally accurate, and that gives the books a strong educational component – even though education will likely be the last thing on the minds of kids who pick them up.
Thus, Micro Monsters says that bees have the “superpower” of “coordinated group attack,” are “wired for sound” through auditory organs in their antennae, and possess “thermal-action wings, auxiliary eyes, and deadly stingers.” And there is a chart rating their intelligence, strength, speed, agility, endurance and evasion on a scale of 1 to 10 (bees score 2 on intelligence and 8 on evasion). The common tick is described as a “tenacious terror” that gets a 10 rating for endurance and has a superpower of “marathon feeding that lasts up to 24 hours.” The dust mite, which gets a 9 rating for evasion, is called a “skin eater,” and mites “ingest their feces up to three times to extract nutrients and water.” Add in superior photographs of all the tiny creatures – closeups of their bodies and parts of their bodies – and a layout that emphasizes bright colors, minimal text and boxes and tabs that come straight from computer design, and you have a good sense of what this book does and how. There is also a foldout of a man showing “life on you,” ranging from head lice to mouth bacteria to a skin fungus called Trichophyton. Scientifically, all the information here is accurate, and that is what makes the book worthwhile from an educational (or parental) point of view. Traditionalists may bemoan the book’s approach – this is not the way kids “should” learn science. But “should” is a dangerous word – and in fact, maybe this is the way they should absorb facts in a world filled with video inputs and with little patience for standard texts.
Savage Safari takes the same approach as Micro Monsters and applies it to “animal warriors.” The Bateleur Eagle, for example, is labeled “airborne terror,” given a 6 for intelligence and a 10 for agility, and described as having “turbo engines” (its muscular wings) and “ironclad clamps” (its claws). Savage Safari does some extra things with design and display. A two-page spread on “African Realms” has a middle flap that shows the continent and, when moved from right to left, the regions within it – each of which is then color-coded to a description that includes ratings for natural resources and biodiversity. Some of the design elements are downright clever, like the two pages called “Africa’s Most Dangerous.” They label the Cape Buffalo “the Mob” because the whole herd sometimes attacks, and the Nile Crocodile “Leather Face.” But at the far right is “Public Enemy Number One,” discovered only when the reader opens a flap – and it turns out to be the mosquito, labeled “Doctor Death.” The approach of the Extreme Encounters books is certainly unconventional, but that may be just the jump start needed to convince some reluctant readers to pick them up and go through them.
How to Clean a Hippopotamus also relies, to some extent, on clever layout and striking graphics, but it is a more traditionally written book about animals, and it features drawings of animal behaviors rather than photos. A number of animals here also appear in Savage Safari – including the Nile crocodile and the hippopotamus. But this book shows them in a different light – not as agents of terror but as elements in a vast and fascinating web of cooperation. The story of animals’ symbiotic relationships has often been told before, but the husband-and-wife team of Steve Jenkins and Robin Page makes the narrative especially attractive here. The authors tell about the oxpecker, also called tickbird, which lives by eating parasites found on giraffes, rhinos, deer and other animals – making the animals more comfortable and, when danger threatens, warning them with loud shrieks. The tiny, vulnerable boxer crab grabs two stinging anemones in its claws and brandishes them when a big fish threatens – later rewarding the anemones, quite unconsciously, by letting small scraps of food drop onto them while the crab itself eats. A bird called the honeyguide tracks bees to their hive but is not strong enough to break it open – so it locates a ratel, or honey badger, and leads the animal to the hive; the ratel breaks the hive open to feed, and the honeyguide gets bee larvae and honeycomb bits for its own meal. Jenkins and Page do not make the mistake of describing these animal associations as “agreements” or “partnerships,” which they are not – they are simply evolutionary methods by which otherwise unrelated animals can benefit from each other’s habits. This does not, however, make symbiosis any less fascinating, and How to Clean a Hippopotamus has enough intriguing examples – combined with enough reader-friendly presentation – to be a fascinating excursion for young readers with an interest in how animals live.