The Bat Scientists. By Mary Kay Carson. Photographs by Tom Uhlman. Houghton Mifflin. $18.99.
Bearwalker. By Joseph Bruchac. Illustrations by Sally Wern Comport. Harper. $5.99.
Guardians of Ga’Hoole, Book One: The Capture. By Kathryn Lasky. Scholastic. $5.99.
Animal Rescue Team #2: Special Delivery! By Sue Stauffacher. Illustrated by Priscilla Lamont. Knopf. $12.99.
One of the most interesting of Houghton Mifflin’s many fascinating “Scientists in the Field” books is Mary Kay Carson’s The Bat Scientists, simply because bats themselves are so amazing and so widely misunderstood. This book is, almost of necessity, largely the story of Merlin Tuttle and the organization he founded, Bat Conservation International. There is no other group quite like this one. Both Tuttle and BCI work tirelessly to get the word out about the importance of bats, to educate people about these wonderfully adapted and extremely beneficial flying mammals, and to argue strenuously for bat protection – which is more crucial than ever now because of a fungal disease called White Nose Syndrome, which is threatening the survival of many bat colonies and perhaps even some entire species. The Bat Scientists discusses how bats live, explains their anatomy (they have the same arm bones as humans, but not in the same proportions), shows some of their many habitats (hollow trees, caves, the areas under bridges), and features beautiful and extremely informative photos by Tom Uhlman. Many bats look grotesque by human standards – one reason people have long feared and hated them – but the extreme closeups in this book will go a long way toward generating empathy for them: a rescued baby red bat drinks milk, its huge eyes wide as it looks at the scientist feeding it; a bat pup licks its mother’s face; bats of multiple species snuggle together in the tight quarters they prefer, getting along better than many squeezed-together humans do; and there are photos showing bats flying (individually and in huge clouds), scientists working to make caves safer for bats and to provide artificial homes (such as bat houses) to attract them, and much more. This is a highly informative book about a unique animal – the world’s only flying mammal – and it is also a call for helping to protect creatures whose unique ecological niche is quite beneficial to humans: some bats eat their own weight in insects every night.
Bats, although real, have long been the stuff of legend (vampire stories and other types). But they are not the only animals around which legends have grown. Joseph Bruchac, who specializes in creating scary adventure stories built around Native American myths, calls up one that involves a bear – or a creature that is part bear – in Bearwalker, originally published in 2007 and now available in paperback. This is the story of 13-year-old Baron Braun, who has Mohawk ancestry and is the littlest student in his class – two factors that are both important to the tale. Baron has long been fascinated by bears in a positive way, but he is also aware of the legend of a creature that is part human, part bear, and all evil. And on a class camping trip in the Adirondack Mountains, Baron thinks that creature may be stalking him and his classmates. Bearwalker is worth a (+++) rating for its pacing and the background information it offers as part of the story. But there is no especially mystifying mystery here: when characters learn that someone has been leaving messages while claiming to be someone else, and when there is an unexplained explosion trapping the class at remote Camp Chuckamuck, it is pretty obvious that no supernatural creature is behind the events. On the other hand, there is genuine evil roaming about, and Baron does have a frightening encounter with a real bear (a mother protecting her cubs). Baron also uses his ancestry without expecting too much of it: “I’m not a trained tracker. …Just because I was born Indian doesn’t mean I have the instinctual knowledge, like a spider that knows how to spin a web just because it’s a spider. But I do have…two things in particular that I’ve been told by my parents, by great-uncle Jules, and by Grama Kateri. Look and Listen. Simple enough, it seems, but hard to do and do right.” And it is doing those things right that leads Baron both into terrible danger and, heroically, out of it.
The heroism is of a different sort in the Guardians of Ga’Hoole series, which dates back to 2003 and is now being re-released in connection with an upcoming film. The Ga’Hoole books – there are 15 of them in the main story sequence – are fairly straightforward heroic fantasy, except for their central characters: owls. The first book in the sequence, The Capture, introduces some key characters and many of the settings shown on an included map, including the Island of the Great Ga’Hoole Tree in the middle of the Sea of Hoolemere. The story is a forthright heroic fantasy: young protagonist (Soren) born in a peaceful place where nothing much happens (Tyto) is captured by evil forces and taken to a frightening location, from which he and a friend (Gylfie) must escape. After they do, they meet two other comrades (Twilight and Digger) and begin an epic journey to learn the truth about their world and protect it from danger. These are standard elements of a light-vs.-darkness story, and although Kathryn Lasky uses them well, the whole tale is a fairly standard and predictable one – not in its particulars but in terms of its general direction. Lasky keeps reminding readers that the heroics (and evil deeds) involve owls: “The two little owls’ hearts grew strong, their brains cleared, and their gizzards once again quickened.” Or: “We’ve got to get into that eggorium and the hatchery.” And she is careful to create some specialized vocabulary to reflect the environment: “Grimble, you must be yoicks. It’s not anywhere near the dwenking.” But this is still fairly straightforward (+++) excitement, although middle-grade readers will enjoy it and look forward to the next book, The Journey.
The only journeys that the members of Carters’ Urban Rescue (CUR) make are in and around the town of Grand River, but there are plenty of small-scale adventures to be had in the vicinity – and Sue Stauffacher tells them so entertainingly (and with so much real-world information slipped in) that Special Delivery! gets a (++++) rating. It is quite different from the series’ first entry, Gator on the Loose! But it is just as enjoyable. Keisha Carter, age 10, is again at the center of animal mysteries, of which there are two this time: something very smelly at the community garden and something (or some things) very angry on Orchard Street. The puzzles are actually pretty mundane: tracing the smell leads to a skunk that has taken up residence where it is not wanted, and the anger is coming from crows that are not letting a mail carrier make deliveries to a particular home. But as in the first book, what happens is only part of the story here. How it happens, to whom it happens and why it happens are the other parts, and Stauffacher’s way of knitting events together (and pulling them apart) is one reason the book works so well. Another is that there is no real evil here: well-meaning people make mistakes (one of which explains the crows’ anger), and in correcting those errors, Keisha and the CUR team get to explain about animal behavior in a story context that makes perfect sense and does not seem to be grafted on in order to provide educational value. The team does figure out how to relocate the skunk, of course, but there is an interesting twist to this part of the story when it turns out that maybe the smell that has been bothering everyone was skunklike but not from the animal after all. Add in some believable interactions among members of the Carter family and between the family and the other residents of Grand River, and you have the second winning entry in a series that shows that little, apparently mundane adventures can be at least as interesting in their way as grand confrontations between good and evil can be in theirs.