August 19, 2010

(++++) ALL ABOUT, ON LAND AND AT SEA

Ubiquitous: Celebrating Nature’s Survivors. Poetry by Joyce Sidman. Illustrations by Beckie Prange. Houghton Mifflin. $17.

Here There Be Monsters: The Legendary Kraken and the Giant Squid. By H.P. Newquist. Houghton Mifflin. $18.

     Animals are celebrated in very different ways in these two books. Ubiquitous is specifically labeled a celebration, and Joyce Sidman’s poetry might lead readers to expect something fluffy and evanescent discussing the beauties of this or that creature. Not so. Yes, each animal or plant – plants are also survivors – gets a poem about it, such as “The Mollusk That Made You,” which starts, “Shell of the sunrise,/ sunrise shell,/ yours is the pink lip/ of a pearled world.” But each also gets a carefully drawn picture by Beckie Prange and a good deal of factual material: mollusks are “500 million years old” and “have existed longer than almost any other animal group,” and thrive because “their hard outer shell protects them from the various dangers of sea life: predators, injury, and extreme temperatures.” There is poetry and fact here about lichens, too, and diatoms, about ants and grasses, and about crows: “What grand, colossal, crow-filled schemes/ take shape in your collective dreams?” And: “Crows and their cousins (ravens and jays, for example) belong to the most intelligent family of birds, the corvids. Curious and adaptable, they have excellent memories and have been observed making tools, such as hooked twigs, to secure food – something only great apes and humans are otherwise known to do.” Humans are in this book, too, but at the very end – not because we are less important than the other entries but because we have not been around very long: just 100,000 years or so in our current form, compared with 3.8 billion years for the bacteria with which the book opens. Indeed, the inside front and back covers of the book are a graphic timeline of life, “a string 46 meters long,” according to Prange, who drew it – with one centimeter equal to 1,000,000 years and with geologic periods marked by color changes. Add this graphic representation about life on Earth to the facts and pictures about specific forms of life within the book, and the result is something very poetic indeed, to which Sidman’s own poetry adds additional lilt and loveliness.

     “Loveliness” would scarcely be a word that comes to most minds when contemplating the giant squid, yet this is quite a remarkable animal in almost every way. H.P. Newquist tells the squid’s story by starting long before anyone knew the squid existed – the book’s title, Here There Be Monsters, uses the words employed by old cartographers when labeling what lay beyond the known areas of a map. Newquist connects stories of seagoing monsters with the ancient Greek tales of Scylla, then presses ahead through the years to the 18th century, when Carl Linnaeus developed his classification system for living organisms and a priest named Erik Ludwig Pontoppidan wrote a book in which he named the horrific sea creature of legend the kraken. And so Newquist takes readers onward toward the modern era, through the stories of Pierre Denys de Montfort about a giant octopus attacking warships, to Alfred Lord Tennyson’s 1830 poem “The Kraken,” to Danish professor Japetus Steenstrup’s investigation of the giant squid, to the odd beachings of dozens of the colossal creatures during the 1870s. Herman Melville is here – one chapter of Moby-Dick is about sailors sighting a huge squid – and so is Jules Verne, represented by a famous passage from Twenty Thousand Leagues under the Sea. Eventually – after only some three dozen pages, but having covered a great deal of lore and science – Newquist begins discussing what modern scientists know of the giant squid. And the facts are scarcely less amazing than the legends: the creature has toothlike blades on its tongue, eyes that can be as big as 13 inches across, and knifelike hooks sticking out of its suckers. Closeup photos of the squid’s anatomy look like science-fiction illustrations, and indeed the reality and the legend now coexist: one picture in the book shows a scene of the kraken attacking a ship in the recent film, Pirates of the Caribbean: Dead Man’s Chest. Photos of fishermen hauling a colossal squid aboard their boat, and of scientists later studying it, are as fascinating as movie scenes, and indeed Here There Be Monsters treads the line between science and myth carefully right to the present day. At just 74 pages, and sized like a children’s book, Newquist’s work may seem at first like a once-over-lightly look at a matter of scientific interest. But it is more than that: it is carefully researched, well assembled and well written, and its subject matter is handled with so much excitement – and so much accuracy – that parents will enjoy the book as much as their children will, and will likely learn just as much by reading it.

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